This was a week in American history that kept reminding me of what Mark Twain once said: Politicians are like diapers: Both need to be changed often, and for the same reason.
Watching the historic impeachment hearings this week, I came away not quite sure this is what the framers had in mind when they created the U.S. Senate.
In his essay “Federalist No. 65,” Alexander Hamilton pretty much predicted this week would happen. He admitted the possibility that the Senate’s judgment in an impeachment trial “will connect itself with the preexisting factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
He could have been watching C-SPAN yesterday when he wrote that.
He had hoped that the original design, in which the Senate’s members were handpicked by state legislatures, rather than directly elected, would gather together the most distinguished, virtuous lawmakers in the country with reputations for integrity and nobility of purpose. In populating the body through indirect election, the Senate “would be likely to feel confidence enough in its own situation, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality.”
The 17th Amendment, however, got rid of that appointed Senate and made it directly elected.
And here we are.
Hamilton’s worst fears seem to be playing out in the Senate right at this very moment, when party interest or even self-interest, are winning the day over the greater “public interest.”
It's hard to even know what the public interest is at the moment.
I can’t help but compare and contrast the hyperpartisanship in the Senate with the commitment to the public interest I heard in Colorado the week before from a parade of politicians on both sides of the aisle. They were speechmaking at a bipartisan event put on by our sister publication, Colorado Politics, to mark the opening of the state Legislature’s 72nd general session.
All the speakers, in an effort to celebrate the commitment to nonpartisan journalism by Colorado Politics, sang the virtues of conflict without combat.
Gov. Jared Polis implored the assembled politicos that when dealing with the other party, “We don’t lose our sense of humanity, we don’t lose our sense of humor.”
He exhorted us all to value “progress more than partisanship.”
KC Becker, speaker of the House, pointed out to the bipartisan crowd that 97% of bills passed by the state Legislature last year in Colorado were bipartisan. “If you’re not at the table, you’re going to be on the menu,” she quipped.
Other lawmakers like former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown and former Gov. Bill Owens lauded the virtues of healthy disagreement to push both sides to better legislation, legislation that is sharpened and made more inclusive by debate, but debate always done civilly, with an eye toward getting something done.
“Disagreement is the secret to excellence. Mushy moderation is not as good as disagreement and debate,” said one speaker.
The biggest applause of the night came when an 83-year-old former member of that troubled U.S. Senate, Gary Hart, reminded us of our obligation to put “country first, party second.”
Hart pointed out how much the Senate has changed, harking back to days when senators on opposite sides worked closely together, formed deep friendships, and went out and had a beer after a hard day in the chamber. Hart, a Democrat, pointed to his decades-long friendship with Republican John McCain as a prime example of what the Senate used to be, and should be.
Hart quieted a rambunctious crowd at the reception to a whisper when he spoke tenderly and eloquently of being a pallbearer at McCain’s funeral, reminding everyone that despite our differences in priority, we are all contributors to a single project, the American project.
I think the Founders’ original goal with the Senate — to create a body that had the courage to put the public good first — still informs America’s expectations of its legislators, but more at a local level than at a national one at the moment.
Becker, for one, thinks our state and “The Colorado Way” we do politics could be a role model for the country.
It may be that out here in the wilds, beyond the Twittersphere and cable news echo chamber of Washington, the heart of the real America envisioned by our Founders still beats, and may be where a renewal of that idea that the “public interest” always must come first blossoms again.