By Shivaji Sengupta
It could justifiably be said that if ever Congress had the chance to show the American public that they were capable of doing bipartisanship work, it was over the decision to get an independent, bipartisan commission to probe into the January 6 insurrection. Not since our Capitol was attacked and ransacked like the British did in 1812, the 2021 assault came at the very time when Congress was carrying out one of its most sacred duties: confirm the results of a democratic presidential election, one of the most sacrosanct aspects of democracy, along with the vote.
We all remember vividly the onslaught on the Capitol, every moment of it, from the gathering of the Trump supporters outside the White House to protest the Congressional session (as some of us innocently thought), to the then President’s instigation “to fight like hell” to overturn the results of a democratic process, to the marching of over two thousand people to the Capitol. Then, suddenly, the mutiny. We stared in disbelief as Trump’s “troops” armed with everything from tridents to sling ropes and knives, stormed the building shouting at lawmakers to “stop the steal,” a slogan the former president popularized since the night he lost the election. Still, those of us who grew into adulthood in this country, who have witnessed justifiable protests against unjust political phenomena like the Vietnam War, or the peaceful civil rights marches, couldn’t believe that these protesters, coming from all over America, would actually break barriers and attack our lawfully elected Congress members; would demand the demise of the Speaker and Vice President; tear into the classical, august structure symbolizing the oldest democracy in the world. We stared in disbelief.
The formal election of the 46th president was delayed by many hours, way into the wee hours of the following morning, after the Capitol lay waste, documents of political and historical import confiscated, policemen dead, and scores wounded. All this while, for what amounted to almost twelve hours, our former president’s only concern was whether Congress would overturn the results of a democratic election, and return him as president! He had coaxed, cajoled and bullied his supporters to rebel violently, and after its failure, was unrepentant and petulant.
An independent commission would have been the logically obvious consequence. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers were targeted with cries of kidnapping Nancy Pelosi and hanging Mike Pence. There hadn’t been an attack on an American institution since 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination. We expected a commission to go deep into the matter. It was a foregone conclusion. The other two warranted commissions. This one would too. All early indications pointed to it. The minority leaders of both the House and Senate publicly criticized the president. The talk of an independent commission started the very next day. All roads pointed to Rome.
Then the reality set in for Republicans. They began to realize how grossly the outgoing president had overplayed his hand. Just as he was itching to become president again, so were the Republicans readying themselves to win back the Senate and the House where they had lost by razor-thin margins. Given that the midterms are usually bad for incumbent parties, a Republican resurgence was on the cards. But thanks to Trump, a long drawn out Commission, with subpoenas of all the major players, including Trump, could badly hurt their chances in 2022. They couldn’t afford to risk another loss. By hook or by crook, they had to stop the Commission.
And they chose Mitch McConnell to lead the way.
A word about McConnell. Having been in Congress for over forty years, much of it as a majority or minority leader, no one is probably more Machiavellian than Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr of Kentucky. He calls himself Mitch, eschewing though perhaps not consciously the name of a famous classical English essayist, Joseph Addison, who used to be a model of humor and logic. This Mitch is logical too, but famously humorless (at least in public), and one who perverts logic rather than use it toward positive ends. All he understands is party in the service of power. He will demean himself shamelessly, smirk with an eighty-year old decrepit smile at insults hurled toward him, even by a president, as long as his party stays in power, and he is in the forefront. Nothing else matters. He used to be Joe Biden’s friend. Not any longer. McConnell pledged before the 2020 election, in which he won a seventh term, that he would be the “grim reaper” of liberal policy proposals. “If I’m still the majority leader in the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass,” he told voters in Owensboro, Ky. He wasn’t the majority leader anymore. But effectively it didn’t make any difference. The Republicans got their way.
The Republicans called the Democrats’ proposal of a commission everything from “witch hunt” (Trump) to “playing politics” (McConnell). Late in the political football game, McConnell sounded to his fellow Republican senators, the two-minute warning. reported that the Senate minority leader told Republican colleagues over lunch the day before the vote that they should oppose the creation of a Jan. 6 commission, no matter , because it “could hurt the party’s midterm election message.” The Republicans took advantage of the filibuster to stop a vote on the commission which, from all accounts, would have garnered the 60 votes necessary.
Now, the filibuster is not legally or constitutionally provided to counter proposals by the majority party. It is a senatorial invention, effected in 1806, but was seldom used until the twentieth century. President Woodrow Wilson, a doctorate in political science, had successfully introduced a way to stop filibusters by the three-fifth of the senate voting it down. Ironically, the Democrats also employed the filibuster when they lost the majority in Congress in 2014. Obviously, they saw it as protecting the country from voting an unfair law by the majority party. Now that the Democrats are in the majority, filibusters do not suit them. There is talk of gutting it by a simple majority vote, but the Democrats fear that they might need it in the future when they lose the majority. In the final analysis, filibuster is an antidote to bipartisanship. When the latter is impossible, the Senate needs it.
Is bipartisanship dead, a thing of the past? Not long ago, President Obama had appointed two Republicans to his cabinet because he wanted “the best in his cabinet, regardless of political allegiance.” How ironical it is that the same president was rendered practically ineffective by a Republican Congress who, because of his color and creed, refused to even debate his proposals during the last two years of his presidency. Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, became president this year and promised bipartisanship in his inaugural speech – to little avail. He has been trying idealistically to encourage bipartisanship by inviting important Republican members of Congress to the White House to discuss his proposals. Frustrated, he is trying to go beyond the elected representatives to the American people, addressing them in his speeches. Over 60% support his proposals to boost the health and economic conditions of the post-Covid middle class. As he tries to forge ahead, putting back together a country broken by Covid and an incompetent wayward president, to “build back better,” his former colleagues in the senate – like Mitch McConnell – who had nothing but praise for him before, have now turned enemy.
Like Satan in , McConnell might as well say to his fellow senators in the minority,
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Shivaji Sengupta is a retired Professor of English at Boricua College, New York City. He has a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has been a regular contributor to The South Asian Times. He is a member of the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee.