The U.S. Senate should be a polite membership club rather than a contentious governmental body whose balance of power shapes the lives of millions of human beings, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) argued Tuesday.
Manchin went to the floor to beg his colleagues to sign a bizarre pledge of mutual loyalty to one another. “Washington will be dysfunctional until we all draw a line of truce and say we’re here for the same reason, we take the same oath,” he said. “If you’re willing to serve, you’re my comrade and I’m willing to work with you.”
He decried the endless fundraising that fills politicians’ nights and the vitriolic politicking that crowds their days, before taking out a pen and signing a formal pledge of his own design. “I’m pledging to the people of West Virginia and to the American people that I will not campaign against a sitting colleague,” he said.
Manchin’s document calls for the 100 stinking-rich members of the most prestigious, least prolific legislative body in the developed world to down tools. Pledge signers would give their word to never campaign against another sitting senator, raise money for their opponents, and “not use or endorse social media campaigns that attack them.”
Call it the Olive Garden theory of political disputation: When you’re here, you’re family.
Picture for a moment the world Manchin envisions.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R), representing almost 28 million Texans in Washington, would not be allowed to criticize Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), the voice of some 757,952 North Dakotans, on the internet.
The next time Sen. Joni Ernst (R) votes to restrict abortion rights using the power given to her by Iowa’s 3.1 million people, the women who represent 39 million Californians in the Senate would be barred from helping reproductive rights groups raise money to defeat her.
When Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leverages humanitarian impulses toward refugees and migrants to swindle colleagues into giving away trillions of dollars to already-rich people, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would be allowed to say that’s bad on the floor, but never to tweet about #MoneybagsMitch or throw a fundraiser for a Kentucky Democrat who wants to make McConnell prove he’s still worthy of representing their state.
This is a recipe for a dumber, shallower world, perhaps more polite but decidedly less engaged with real and deep disagreements about which policies are good and which are bad.
Manchin’s pledge would also reinforce the core problems of the Senate as a democratically representative institution. This is an organization of 100 rich incumbents — average net worth $11 million — who routinely greet the concerns of the needy with deaf ears even under the current partisanship Manchin ostensibly decries. The federalist design of the body that made so much sense to the nation’s framers a quarter-millenium ago now makes a mockery of democratic ideals. Sens. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and John Barrasso (R-WY) can cancel out the votes of Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) anytime, giving Wyoming’s 585,000 residents exactly the same representation in the Senate as the one-in-six Americans who live in California.
Preventing any of these people from doing politics to one another just because they won an election once would only make the institution even more representationally decrepit. The Senate only responds to the interests and concerns of the wealthiest people and companies in the country today. That isn’t a matter of Republican control — as much as Democrats like to position themselves as champions of the underclass, the same research finds they’re at least as blind as their GOP colleagues to the needs of the poor and middle-class — but of incumbency. The average sitting senator has been in office for just under 11 years. One in five senators has been in their job for over 15 years, with an average tenure of 25 years in that senior-most fifth of the body.
Manchin is right that the imperatives of fundraising cheapen the work of public service. His nostalgia for the bygone era when senators forged real friendships in Washington and used the security of those personal relationships to create space for a more generous kind of politics may not be entirely misplaced either.
But the idea of solving those problems by promising to never go after somebody who fails to represent the best interests of their citizens, simply because they’re already a member of the club, is something out of a 1990s West Wing episode.
In the real world in 2018, the pledge Manchin signed Tuesday put him within a few thousand Alabama votes of promising to never speak ill of a man whose reputation for sexually preying upon teenagers was so well-known that he was banned from a shopping mall.