Of Purple Tickets, Economic Salvation and Seating Senators

Posted January 27, 2009 at 3:27pm

Three topics today. First is the inauguration. In all, it was a marvelous event. But like many readers, I know a number of people who were turned away from the inauguration despite having tickets and having done everything they were told to do.

[IMGCAP(1)]Most of those I know in that category were either Washington residents or people who came from relatively short distances, but there were many people who came from across the country, or who traveled here despite substantial physical and financial hardships, all to be a part of history and experience firsthand the marvel of Barack Obama being sworn in as president. Wherever they came from, they were devastated.

It is clear that there were major screw-ups, despite months of planning and clear signs of a huge turnout. At the designated gate for purple ticket-holders, there was no one to open the gate or let people in, for hours, despite huge lines, and no one claimed responsibility or arranged for help. People’s dreams were dashed.

The Washington Post feature on this problem suggests that the Capitol Police were significantly to blame. I don’t know the reality of who was at fault, but I do know it was inexcusable and that those who were should be held strictly accountable. There is a lot going on now in Congress, but Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, and Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, need to hold hearings on this fiasco and get to the bottom of it.

Second is the stimulus package. The stakes could not be higher, and I do not mean the political stakes. The economy is in serious jeopardy. I was just in Europe, where the economic situation is more dire and deteriorating rapidly. Asia is in trouble as well. We could see a global meltdown, with implications not just for the global economy but for global political stability. Every economist left and right has expressed the need for a massive stimulus plan; many believe that even a trillion-dollar plan is too timid.

We can all argue about the component parts of such a plan. While ideally, all of the money involved should be injected quickly into the economy to boost consumption and avoid the danger of deflation, much of the money simply will not be able to do that trick with the dispatch we desire. But we can get a separate boost from a surge in confidence that would come with a competent package supported widely in the political arena, managed by a new and widely popular president.

Both parties need a gut check here. Democrats need to bend over backward to get Republican input, even in the House where they can pass legislation without it. But more important, especially given Obama’s major efforts to reach out to the minority party, Republicans have to get over their knee-jerk desire to oppose a plan that is not the one they would write if they had won the election, and find a way, quickly, to get on board.

This is not a matter of political calculus, but of consequences. If we dawdle too long trying to satisfy every demand, or play petty games, the consequences could be severe. It is truly time for responsible leadership and followership. That House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told their colleagues to vote against the package even before the president traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with House Republicans is inexcusable.

Third is the matter of how vacancies are filled in the Senate. The past two months have provided a fascinating, if unsettling, civics lesson for many Americans. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which mandated popular elections for the Senate, also permitted states to create executive appointments to the body to fill vacancies rather than requiring special elections, as in the House of Representatives. Most states do indeed permit or require, in most circumstances, appointments, and most often they have been relatively uncontroversial.

In this case, we have had two major flaps, with the tainted appointment process to replace Obama employed by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), and the embarrassing, extended appointment farce to replace now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton employed by New York Gov. David Paterson (D).

More than anything else, the Illinois case, with the taint of Blago amplified by the unproductive machinations in the Senate to avoid seating his choice, has created a serious movement to change the Constitution and remove the possibility of gubernatorial appointments to the body. There are many compelling reasons to do so, including the large number of Senate seats that would be filled by governors of the opposite party, thwarting the public will expressed in elections.

There are also reasons to have appointments. With a body as small as the Senate, and with situations, like 2008-09, where there may be five or six vacancies, waiting for months for special elections could create a real problem for the chamber, altering the balance of power and changing the dynamics of filibusters and cloture. But opting for elections as the first principle is powerful enough that I could support the constitutional amendment being crafted by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who does not support amending the Constitution readily, and is as thoughtful on such matters as anybody in or out of Congress.

But I have one huge caveat. Such a constitutional amendment must allow an exception — for catastrophes like terrorist attacks that could cause enough vacancies or incapacities in the Senate to threaten the existence of a constitutionally mandated quorum, and thus put the Senate itself out of business for months or even years.

The attacks on 9/11 and the anthrax assaults that followed show how vulnerable Congress is or can be; having some appointment flexibility in the event of disaster is a necessary, prudent codicil to the Feingold Amendment. Add it, and we have a compelling case for reform.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.