Monday, November 1, 2010

The United States Senate and Senator Feingold

I highly recommend Jonathan Cohn's tribute to Russ Feingold.  Over the weekend, I asked liberals who they were especially rooting for tomorrow, and Feingold got lots of mentions.  As far as I'm concerned, that's nuts, but I'll have to admit I'm just not a fan.  Perhaps its something about that part of the country that I just don't get (I never liked Proxmire, either), but I don't know why liberals would care so much about someone whose main accomplishments were symbolic, and who couldn't be counted on to support his party when it mattered.

All that said: I do think he's been a good Senator, in one important sense.  As I've said over and over when talking about the filibuster, United States Senators have strong incentives to create a decentralized, non-hierarchical, body.  The problem is that such a Senate doesn't go well with boringly partisan Senators.  If we're to have a Senate in which individual Senators matter, then it's not such a bad thing to have some Senators really act as individuals.  You don't have to be independent of your party to do that -- Ted Kennedy was as orthodox as they come in his voting record, but he sure wasn't just a generic Democrat -- but it's one way to do it.  By that standard, I think Tom Coburn is a good Senator; Bernie Sanders is a good Senator; and Russ Feingold is a good Senator.

I'll add that in a two-party system, it's not such a bad thing that the institution encourages Senators to act apart from their parties.  It's a good thing when Americans whose views don't really match up with either mainstream Democrats or mainstream Republicans can point to at least one of a hundred Senators as "theirs."  For good government liberals, Russ Feingold has been a match.

It's not the only thing that the Senate needs -- the Senate also needs workhorses, someone like Paul Sarbanes, who was a great workhorse in the Senate, wasn't exactly an "individual" of that type.  (You can be both, as the Ted Kennedy example shows).  I don't think that's Feingold's thing, though, although he did do serious legislative work on the campaign finance stuff, I suppose.  Russ Feingold has been a good Senator in the way that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a good Senator.  As I've said, he's not to my tastes, but I guess that's the point; if we're going to have something like the United States Senate, we should hope that it doesn't get filled with 100 nameless timeservers and party hacks, or else there really is no point to it.  And I say that as about the biggest fan of party hacks that you're going to find.


  1. Can I just say (And I say that as about the biggest fan of party hacks that you're going to find.), "Outstanding close!"

  2. This is an interesting perspective, since I am also in the Feingold non fan club. He lost me when he voted with the Republicans on some procedural vote at the start of the Clinton impeachment trial.

    I'm sure it was one of those theoretical respect-for-the-process things, and it had no more practical consequence than the votes his admirers love, but it made him a marked man in my book, the prospective loss I regret least. (It may be geographical with me, too; I just don't relate to upper Midwest goo-gooism. Thank God Obama turned out to be basically a Chicago guy after all.)

    But I grant he was no timeserver or party hack!

  3. Don't agree his "main accomplishments have been symbolic", at least as we consider his No votes on Bush's AUMF (Iraq War) and the Patriot Act (the only senator to vote Nay), and his votes (iirc) against Roberts and Alito.

    Generally vy good on civil liberties, and has tried to withstand some awful political tendencies in the crazed flag-waving fever of the times to do the right thing and stand by the Constitution.

    Do agree with Rick about his unfortunate vote on a Sen Byrd proposal during impeachment (to short-circuit the presentation of evidence in the senate and go immediately to a vote on whether to convict). I thought, and still do, that voting to play the whole thing out actually validated the entire bogus and politically cynical process, but Russ probably argued that it would allow the Clinton side to rebut the charges in public and expose them for what they were. And in the end, again iirc, he voted not to convict on all counts.

    Overall though, a fine, if not perfect, senator, and a little more to my liking than, say, the somewhat similar Pat Moynihan.

  4. "Don't agree his "main accomplishments have been symbolic", at least as we consider his No votes on Bush's AUMF (Iraq War) and the Patriot Act (the only senator to vote Nay), and his votes (iirc) against Roberts and Alito"

    Actually, those seem like exactly what JB is talking about- I mean, as right as he was on those votes, his side still, y'know, lost (Except on Roberts, he voted FOR Roberts).

  5. Actually, those seem like exactly what JB is talking about- I mean, as right as he was on those votes, his side still, y'know, lost

    Well perhaps I didn't catch exactly how JB was using the term. Seems awfully broad the way you interpret it though. By just a won-loss measure, probably most senators, if they're around more than one term and actively engaged in proposing or voting on legislation, could be defined as successful only in the symbolic sense.

    I took symbolic to refer more to perhaps procedural votes or sense of the senate inconsequential votes or proposals everyone knows are pie in the sky and will go nowhere (e.g., to create a Dep't of Peace or a bill to abolish the CIA). His vote against the Byrd-impeachment amendment could be deemed symbolic (standing up for proper process and full airing of charges to ensure fairness, etc).

    That would be as opposed to (in my interpretation of the word) non-symbolic, substantive (final) votes on important issues. Like going to war, or the Patriot Act or whom to confirm for Scotus or campaign finance reform.

    Btw, you're right about his vote for Roberts (odd one there -- Feingold Aye, but the usually more conservative DiFi - Nay). Good though to read that he came out firmly against the recent Citizens United ruling (while some civ liberties libs, like Glenn Greenwald, were less troubled by it), and that RF also has voiced concerns, or implied strongly, that Roberts may have perjured himself in his confirmation hearings. Of course, now that he's on the Court and very unlikely to be unseated, that may be an example of the merely symbolic Russ ...

  6. I agree with Colby here - I consider the vote against Patriot Act symbolic, not substantive. Substantive action would have meant organizing other Senators to oppose it, and then either defeating it (probably not realistic, but you never know), or more likely trading their opposition for real, substantive changes in the proposed bill. That's totally realistic, and in fact happens all the time. Now, I'm not saying that compromise is always better than just saying no to something, but it often is, especially when you're in the minority. My impression of Feingold is that when the situation calls for a symbolic vote, that's what he does -- and when the situation calls for compromise, he's casting a symbolic vote. But I'm by no means an expert on his career, so if I'm wrong, feel free to correct me.

    (I do seem to recall that Pat Leahy negotiated some concessions on Patriot Act, although I have no idea how important they were, and I suspect he didn't do a great job of negotiating, but then again these are hazy memories of vague impressions from ten years ago, so take it for what it's worth).

  7. Well, it's your blog, and I'm only here offering the occasional different pov at your sufferance (and once in a while high-fiving someone for a nifty post or thought). But it seems to me a senator, one of only 100 and a non-chair of an important committee, can only do so much, particularly a freshman senator like RF was during AUMF and the Patriot Act.

    RF negotiate with the suddenly very powerful Bush-Cheney admin when they know that (PAct) proposal was an easy slam dunk? Not gonna happen. That was for Daschle and maybe Leahy to do, and neither was capable of much. Nor, given the terrible tenor of the fearful times, was freshman Russ in much of a position to rustle up more votes for his side, though I'm not sure any of us really knows all the backstory (discussions with Teddy K? Wellstone? Boxer?).

    Under the dicey political circumstances of the time, and Russ coming from a purple state, I thought RF's votes in both cases were heroic and courageous. Calling them merely "symbolic" tends to be a bit too dismissive for my tastes.

    Now Lieberman and Specter, there you have two senators I think of who consistently have cast symbolic votes in their careers, on procedure and the final substance, the better to play both sides of the aisle and produce a final mavericky moderate profile that has kept them in office for decades but not for good principled reasons. Feingold, though he's not perfect, I perceive as not remotely as cynical and self-serving as those two.

    Perhaps we can agree on this: Go SF Giants tonight. (yes -- if the Giants are gonna be in the WS and maybe to win it finally, I'm interested in MLB again ...)

  8. @Brodie -- I think I'm on your side, insofar as (though I am not in fact in general a huge fan, and I consider his refusal to accept financial reform knowing he was handing Scott Brown a big eraser unforgiveable in its perhaps small way) I was truly heartened at the time to know that even one Senator was willing to vote against the Patriot Act. But I also think I accept JB et al.'s contention that it was a symbolic vote. I sort of think that might be what you mean too when you call the vote "both heroic and courageous?" And what you and I are saying is that sometimes a little symbol can go a long way in what feel like very dark days? And that the reason we'll miss Feingold even though he's a misguided, irritating scold who may make his stands as much out of perversity as out of principle -- is that sometimes no one else has seemed willing to provide that little symbol? But I do apologize if I'm putting words in your mouth.

  9. Is the question whether or not a vote is symbolic or substantive? If we assume perfect information on the parts of the Senators, then any vote cast for anything passing with something other than 60 exactly is symbolic: with <59 or >61 votes, the outcome does not depend on that one Senator, so the vote is only symbolic.

    However, the question then seems to become if symbolic objection is meaningful. If so, then the very term "symbolic" will give us problems.

    We also have to give RF credit for what his "symbolic" protest votes do: they signal his preferences to the rest of the chamber. To the extent that any Senator's vote matters, this matters because future compromises will have to take this into account. Thus, Harry Reid has to somehow try to craft legislation that pleases RF AND one of the New England Reps.

    That credit, though, is a double-edged sword. RF can get credit for raising the liberal flag and trying to push debate his way, but he can also be blamed if his intransigence lead to a more conservative outcome than his acquiescence would have led to. I'm not saying either that he's been intrasigent nor that it's had those effects, but if there's been bills that could have moved the ball forward if only RF voted for them, then that's a real consequence. We could ALSO have a discussion on whether its better to get a half a loaf or hold out for the whole thing. So, I don't think the whole debate on symbolic/substantive is a very nice and clean one, even in the relatively neat and tidy realm of floor votes.

  10. Okay, its a little late but I think they key word here is compromise. A lot of liberals and progressives are tired of comrpomising in order to pass what they want to. Many liberals didn't want any type HCR to pass, they wanted a specific type of HCR, single-payer. The fact that all we got was the ACA is not satisfying to many liberals. The fact that RF is viewed as favoring purity over compromise is why he is popular. The same goes for Kucinich in the House.

  11. Oh, it was certainly a courageous vote, even given that he was actually in his second term. But "courageous" and "symbolic" aren't opposing virtues. Nor is "symbolic" necessarily a bad thing; as was said, it was very heartening that at least one Senator was standing up for civil liberties, and, more importantly in my mind, not rushing to judgment just because he was scared.

    (And of course, Feingold gets tremendous credit for being, well, RIGHT on most of those issues).

    But I see JB's point, that Feingold's "accomplishments", the things everyone (including me) loves him for...are the things he lost on. Again, that's not BAD, someone has to fight the good fight, but it's okay to prefer someone who wins votes, too (or someone who works out a favorable compromise in exchange for their symbolic vote, like Sanders on HCR or Sherrod Brown on FinReg).


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