Forget about civility. Sadly, many members of Congress have never been acquainted with the idea. The even more pervasive problem on Capitol Hill is the decline in the basic respect for the institution and its veteran members—and the lack of respect is alarmingly prevalent among some of the newer Hill denizens.
Take Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been a GOP senator from Texas for all of a few months. He was quite passionate during a Senate Judiciary Committee markup on an assault weapons ban. That's not offensive; Cruz has a right to his opinion. What is unacceptable was his patronizing and insulting treatment of a senior colleague, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Cruz badgered Feinstein about the constitutionality of an assault weapons ban, explaining in the most simplistic of terms that we have this thing called a Second Amendment, which is part of this thing we have called the Constitution, which allows Americans to bear arms. Never mind that the amendment has never been interpreted to, say, allow any individual to possess a nuclear weapon, indicating that the right is not absolute. Cruz thought the veteran senator needed a civics lesson.
Feinstein would have none of it. "I'm not a sixth-grader," she told Cruz, noting that she had served on the committee for 20 years. "Thank you for your lecture," she added icily.
There are several layers to this disturbing display. Gender is part of it. True, Cruz has made crazy accusations against men (suggesting, with absolutely no evidence, that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had been paid by the North Korean government). But the let-me-spell-this-out-for-you-in-simple-words routine is something almost all women have experienced, be it at work or at a social function. No one explains the "Men Who Explain Things" better than writer Rebecca Solnit, who tells of meeting a man who, when finding out she had written a book on a relatively unusual topic, interrupted her to inform her that a very important book had just been penned on that topic. Turned out that it was her book—and he hadn't even read it; he just read a review of it. Cruz's constitutional lesson to a female colleague who way out-ranks him, in seniority and experience, is another manifestation of that.
Then there's the idea that the Judiciary Committee markup is a campaign stage, and not a collaborative panel assigned to discuss and mark up legislation. The Senate floor has already been so debased, but there was a time when committees clung to a modicum of collegiality. That went out the door with Cruz's polemic.
And most upsetting is the poor regard which some of the new members have for the very institution of the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor trashing Henry Clay, author of the Great Compromise (and a Kentuckian!). Other newcomers have used the filibuster as a procedural way to hold their collective breath until their faces turn blue, holding up legislation or nominations for no other reason than that they don't like some other, unrelated legislation—or maybe just because they don't like the president. That's not only immature; it's disrespectful to the very function of the Senate and democracy itself.
No one needs to tell Feinstein about what guns do. She became mayor of San Francisco as a result of the gun murder of George Moscone—and was the first to discover Supervisor's Harvey Milk's gunshot body. Newcomers like Cruz can learn a lot by listening to veterans like Feinstein, as well as other senior colleagues in both parties. But that requires shutting up first.
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