Over our heads

It is a sad commentary on humans (full disclosure: I am one) that we are too often guided by selfish interests to the exclusion of the general community. Putting it another way, No Man Isn’t an Island. In the political world, in particular, there are countless examples.

Where, oh where do we start? How about the proposition that any reform will be corrupted? Our present campaign-finance laws, for instance, are a patchwork of changes meant to clean up a system that amounted to bribery of our elected officials. Those same rules now have been twisted beyond recognition to the extent that the legalized graft has worsened.

Another one: Authority to protect will inevitably be abused. That’s hardly a new concept, since Lord Acton first uttered the phrase “All power tends to corrupt” back in 19th-century England (thank you very much, Wikipedia). It’s just gotten more routine since then. Give the National Security Agency the ability to conduct surveillance and a mandate to protect America from terrorist attack, and NSA technocrats will turn that into permission to intrude on nearly every private aspect of people all over the planet.

For that matter, the business world will use that same ability to monitor our shopping habits and even know where we are and when to encroach into our homes with telemarketing calls and bombard our computers with sales pitches. Like all their profit-enhancing tactics, they insist that they’re acting on behalf of the stockholders. A noble incentive, to be sure, until we remember that happy stockholders mean exorbitant salaries for the executives who push the ethical boundaries when they’re not crossing them.

It’s government, however, where the various institutions claim lofty guiding principles. The United States Senate prides itself on its role as the calming influence. Legend has it that George Washington told Thomas Jefferson that the Senate is the saucer into which we “pour legislation” to cool. Setting up obstacles that slow down various initiatives, such as passing bills and acting on presidential appointments, are designed to protect us from our worst impulses. One of the ploys members of the upper chamber have traditionally had at their disposal to cool the workings of the hotheads in the lower house is use of the filibuster. They can talk anything to death, unless the other side can stop them using a supermajority vote, currently 60 out of 100. It’s not a bad idea for a nation that prides itself for resisting the “tyranny of the majority.” But, as usual, the bad guys have used the filibuster and related stalling tactics to further their political agenda by stifling nearly everything that emanates from the Obama administration. They have become a tyranny of the minority. They block not only legislation that way, but even presidential nominees, distorting their constitutional “advise and consent” powers.

We’ve just witnessed perversion of the founders’ intent by Republican filibusters that stymied the White House choice to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Mel Watt, because, truth be known, they just don’t like Congressman Watt’s politics, as well as Patricia Millett, a highly regarded lawyer, who was up to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. That’s the court usually described as being second in influence to the Supremes, and truth be known again, the GOP hates the idea of lifetime terms for jurists named by Democrats.

So, once again we hear calls for the Senate majority, the Democrats, to impose the so-called nuclear option, through a parliamentary maneuver that would effectively do away with the filibuster. If that happens, the Republicans promise their own reprisals, possibly grinding the Senate to a halt.

We’ll probably hear this one debated ad nauseum, but there is a much larger issue: We’ve come to a point at which our various institutions, be they public or private, are being run by people who aren’t up to the task. Our country, in so many ways, is becoming a bitter disappointment.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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