The Senate as kabuki theatre

5a37630rThe Senate’s vote this week on a bill to defund Planned Parenthood illustrates several forces that have converted the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into a mechanism of non-stop campaigning.

The impetus for the vote came from group that claims to be a 501(c) organization, the Center for Medical Progress, which released a series of videos about Planned Parenthood. I won’t characterize the videos; most people will bring their own meaning based on their positions. CMP is not my focus; rather it is illustrative.

On its Website, CMP defines itself as “a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances.” Each of the posts on its home page concerns “trafficking in baby parts.” Journalists – not. It’s an anti-abortion advocacy group. In a bit of surfing I found:

  • The IRS database of non-profit organizations does not include CMP
  • CMP is the creation of Live Action, another anti-abortion group that for years has produced sting videos, some contending that Planned Parenthood is engaged in sex-trafficking of minors

In bygone days, if congressional leaders were concerned that a federally supported organization were “trafficking in baby parts” (which is illegal), they might schedule a hearing and invite witnesses to testify, consider a bill in committee, and bring it to the floor for debate and a vote.

In addition to calling witnesses from Planned Parenthood, the committee might call in those involved in making and distributing the videos.

kentucky-senator-mitch-mcconnellSenate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chose another path: Ally Joni Ernst (Iowa) introduced a bill to defund Planned Parenthood two weeks after the first of the CMP videos was released. Two days after that, McConnell brought up the bill and filed a motion to limit debate. Four days later, on August 3, the Senate debated the motion and then, under its 60-vote rule, declined to limit debate, effectively killing the bill.

Another kabuki dance: a story hyped by advocates manipulating social media, taken up in the Senate, which went through a predictable ritual not intended to effect legislative change but to generate heat, a bumper sticker for the next election. It happens frequently, though not often so fast.

The Senate’s filibuster rule is a prime mechanism of the dance. Because in this partisan era neither side can regularly attract 60 votes, no one is held truly accountable for his or her vote. If passage required a simple majority, senators would have to stand knowing that their vote mattered, instead of hiding behind the undemocratic super-majority.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week found Planned Parenthood was rated 45 percent positive/30 percent negative. Among Democrats, Planned Parenthood enjoys a 69-percent positive view; 23 percent of Republicans view the organization positively. (In the same poll, the Democratic Party was viewed evenly negatively and positively; the view of the GOP was 28 percent positive, 44 percent negative.)

Do all Senate Republicans (except Mark Kirk of Illinois, a prime Democratic target in 2016) want to defund a 99-year-old organization supported by public and private funding that provides gynecological care to millions of women? We don’t really know.

We do know that staging a vote, without inquiry or reason, is easier than governing.

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