The new U.S. Senate is struggling to constitute itself this week, and the picture is a sorry one.
Fights over how and when to seat potential members — who have arrived via controversial elections or even more controversial appointments — give the chamber a sideshow feel at a time when it should be asserting itself as an equal partner in the governance of the country.
Senators swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” when taking office.
But, for the most part, members of the upper house of Congress are so concerned with petty partisan games and positioning themselves in relation to a hyper-powerful executive branch that they immediately and completely forget about that oath and the duty to maintain the separation of powers defined by the Constitution.
The exception to the misrule is Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution.
Feingold wants the Senate to get serious about renewing the system of checks and balances that essentially collapsed under the monarchical pressures brought upon it by George Bush, Dick Cheney and their willing accomplices in the House and Senate.
Feingold has been needling President-elect Barack Obama to use his inaugural address to “affirm to the nation, and the world, that respect for the rule of law has returned to the Oval Office.”
In a letter last month to Obama, Feingold wrote, “In light of this recent history, I believe that one of the most important things that you can do as president is to take concrete steps to restore the rule of law in this country — that is, to return to the White House respect for an appropriate separation and balance of powers among the branches, for the president’s important but not paramount place in our constitutional system of government, for the laws that Congress writes and the importance of its oversight functions, and for the judiciary’s crucial role in interpreting the law.”
Feingold’s letter calls the president-elect’s attention to a September hearing of the Constitution subcommittee entitled “Restoring the Rule of Law,” at which more than three dozen historians, law professors and advocates — including John Podesta, now a key player in the transition process — testified.
Out of that hearing came a series of recommendations for steps the new president can and should take to renew the rule of law: