WASHINGTON – Debate began in the Senate Wednesday on the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court,but the prepared speeches senators gave stating their reasons to vote for or against Alito fell on deaf ears,or really a lack of ears.
There were never more than six other senators in the chamber to listen to what another senator had to say. This typical Senate scene may be familiar to some people,but it might come as a revelation to others,especially given the heated exchanges about Alito that have taken place off the Senate floor.
Intense Senate debates have taken place in the nation's past over important issues such as Supreme Court nominations. Before the Persian Gulf War,members of Congress made stirring speeches about whether the U.S. should go to war. Debates raged during Vietnam,the civil rights era and before the Civil War,over slavery.
But real debates are rare.
Michael Moore,associate provost and assistant vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington,said the founders envisioned a government that was slow and deliberative.
“The Senate was supposed to be slower and more reflective,” Moore said. “I don't know if they would be bothered by the amount of debate. What would bother them would be the tone,and they would be bothered,I suspect,at the prevalence of partisanship on issues. When there is a crisis,then you'll have debate.”
David Rohde,a professor of political science at Duke University,said great debate is more likely to occur when the issue is of great importance because the majority party has the greatest incentive to act.
When that occurs,Rhode said,the minority party attacks both the rules of debate and the substance of legislation “because that's all they've got is words. They often cannot offer amendments or offer the kinds of amendments they want to offer.”
What passes for debate these days is individual members of Congress making speeches to nearly empty chambers,not to change the minds of fellow legislators,but for the American public,said Gary Jacobson,a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego.
“The practice of speaking to an audience outside of the chamber is very old,” Jacobson said. “These people are professional politicians,and they will not be swayed by others' oratory.”
The situation isn't likely to change soon because of the underlying causes,Rhode said. Although the Senate is supposed to be the great deliberative body,the tone of debate has become more like that of the House because so many former House members are now senators.
However,this does not mean that Congress is “conflictual” about every issue,Rohde said.
“All the major bills are fought with conflict and cause,” Rohde said. “I see that continuing as far as the eye can see. The only reason I say it won't get worse is because it can't get worse,or much more extreme.”
One example of the harsh tone of exchanges in formal sessions came in November over a proposal by Rep. John P. Murtha,D-Pa.,to withdraw all troops from Iraq immediately. Rep. Jean Schmidt,R-Ohio,suggested Murtha was a coward. Murtha was decorated for valor during service in Vietnam.
Not only did Schmidt receive a barrage of boos immediately following her comments on the House floor,but politicians on both sides of the aisle cried foul as well. Schmidt apologized.
The Senate schedule calls for daily sessions lasting from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. until all 100 senators have had a chance to speak about Alito,with a vote expected at the end of this week or early next week.
Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas,said Democrats know they cannot defeat Alito's nomination,so the constant rhetoric coming from the Democrats is smearing his name and reputation.
“Some of the critics are saying,here is a bad man who's going to use the power given to him on the Supreme Court in order to do what he wants to do not what the law says,” Cornyn said after speaking in Alito's favor on the Senate floor. “It's a character assassination and it's not right.”
Norman J. Ornstein,a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,said things in Congress have gotten nastier in the last 10 to 15 years. “You see a little bit less of referring to people as my distinguished friend or colleague,” he said. “You see more partisanship.”