The Utter Ridiculousness of the U.S. Senate

The world’s greatest deliberative body? Really?

A flag inside the U.S. Capitol
Erin Scott / Reuters

On the second day of President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Chief Justice John Roberts told a joke—though not intentionally. Presiding over the trial, the chief justice saw the House impeachment manager Representative Jerry Nadler snipe at the president’s defense team over the falsehoods the president’s defense lawyers had put forward, and Roberts then watched as the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, sniped right back.

Roberts then weighed in: “I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms,” he said, “to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Roberts was being earnest. But given the Senate’s conduct over the past weeks, the only reasonable way to interpret his description of the chamber is as the bleakest of jests.

The world’s greatest deliberative body? Really?

The Senate was never destined to shroud itself in glory during the president’s impeachment trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s early announcement that he would work “in total coordination with the White House” made that clear enough.

But even onlookers tuning in with appropriately low expectations have reason to be disappointed by how the members of this once-august body have gone out of their way not to hear evidence essential to the decision before them. Even those cynical about the institution in this hyper-partisan age might have expected more, if only a little bit more, than for a Senate majority to line up to deny the plain reality of the presidential conduct at issue. And even those who managed to anticipate the Senate’s willingness to mindlessly ignore reality in order to acquit the president of charges of which he is plainly guilty could be surprised at the degree to which senators seem to want plaudits for doing so. Early in the 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley quipped in a sonnet, referring to Parliament, that “a Senate [was] Time’s worst statute, unrepealed.” The U.S. Senate seems bent on proving the point.

How else should we interpret Republican senators’ response to last week’s implied criticism from the lead impeachment manager, Representative Adam Schiff, who closed the House’s opening arguments by pointing to reports that senators were warned their heads would be “on a pike” if they voted against the president? Republicans were outraged, and they wanted reporters to know it. Senator James Lankford described the Republican side of the aisle as “visibly upset” by Schiff’s reference to the reports. Senator Lisa Murkowski said Schiff had “lost her” with the comment. Senator Susan Collins declared that reports of the warning were “not true,” even while Schiff was still speaking on the Senate floor.

Schiff, at the very least, correctly reflected the implication of those reports: This is a group of people who have time and again set aside principles in fear of an angry tweet and who are openly toying with doing so again. Republican senators were furious at Schiff’s accurate diagnosis of their cowardice.

Whom exactly do these people think they’re kidding? By what possible metric can the U.S. Senate flatter itself that it remains the world’s greatest deliberative body? Certainly not by the quality of the deliberation that takes place there. Any grade-school class that meets as a group during circle time to decide what the students want for a snack does more genuine deliberation than does the Senate. Debates have come to take place before an empty chamber and speeches, whatever their purpose, are never designed to convince colleagues. Perhaps it’s appropriate that reporters have amused themselves during the trial by keeping tabs on which senators are drinking milk—the only beverage other than water allowed on the Senate floor under the chamber’s rules, but one that has a tendency to make the drinker look like a child.

And then there’s the consternation at Schiff’s candor. Senators Lankford, Murkowski, and Collins cannot really imagine that people are watching their performance in office with admiration. They cannot actually believe that Americans are nodding with approbation at the courage they are showing in lining up strictly according to party expectations even in the face of the institutional interests of the body with respect to access to information and witnesses in a weighty matter they are charged with deciding. Their behavior is more in line with what the Victorian wit W. S. Gilbert once described in deriding the overly loyal, substance-less career politician: “I always voted at my party’s call / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

Whit Stillman’s terrific 1990 movie, Metropolitan, portrays New York’s old-money debutante-ball culture, featuring a group of college students who imagine themselves as some kind of social elite in a world that barely knows, let alone cares, that traditional elites still exist. They gather regularly and have customs—such as dressing regularly in formal wear—to which they are committed, and of which they are defensive. Yet they are, despite their self-perception, relentlessly ordinary, just a group of kids who want to party, some of whom are intellectually pretentious, some of whom don’t bother with that and just want to play drinking games and think themselves important.

This is today’s Senate. It is distinguished neither by its deliberation nor by its legislative accomplishments; its members are, with a few notable exceptions, the most ordinary sort of political minds. Yet it is insistent on its prerogatives, constantly reminding people of its status, and with members outraged by the relatively gentle statement of realities that are plain for anyone to see. It is composed of the sort of people who stage a show trial out of fear of the political consequences of doing otherwise, make mockeries of their own oaths, yet expect the maintenance of the pretense that they are gravely deliberating—and wax indignant at any frank description of their conduct. They wish, in short, to be ridiculous without being ridiculed.

This week, senators will have to decide whether they want to remain ridiculous. The New York Times reports that, according to sources who described a book manuscript by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, the president told Bolton in August that he wanted to continue the hold on aid to Ukraine until the country committed to providing derogatory information on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. If Bolton’s account is accurate, it provides just what the president’s defense team has complained the House managers failed to present: a direct link between the president himself and the hold on aid.

Bolton has said he’s willing to testify in the ongoing trial. The only thing left is for senators to actually call him—for which at least four Republicans would need to break rank. This is the choice with which moderate Republicans are now faced: Vote to hear Bolton, risking your head on a pike but carving out some measure of independence and integrity for yourself, or vote to acquit the president without listening to Bolton’s testimony and appear absurd when the evidence clinching the case against Trump becomes available in every bookstore in America.

But if members of the world’s greatest deliberative body choose to beclown themselves, you had better not laugh at them for it.