On the Need for Dissent and Debate in These Urgent Times

On the Need for Dissent and Debate in These Urgent Times

On the Need for Dissent and Debate in These Urgent Times

Congress has to figure out how to debate and vote remotely. We can’t accept government by “unanimous consent.”


When Representative Tom Massie signaled last week that he would ask for a vote on the $2 trillion plan to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, all hell broke loose.

The congressman, whose libertarian streak has often made him an outlier in the House, was accused of making a petty demand that endangered the lives of colleagues who would be called back from their districts—in many cases an airplane flight away—to approve the measure. President Trump tweeted, “Looks like a third rate Grandstander named @RepThomasMassie, a Congressman from, unfortunately, a truly GREAT State, Kentucky, wants to vote against the new Save Our Workers Bill in Congress. He just wants the publicity. He can’t stop it, only delay, which is both dangerous & costly.”

Trump’s solution? “Throw Massie out of Republican Party!”

Former secretary of state John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president, let rip: “Breaking news: Congressman Massie has tested positive for being an asshole. He must be quarantined to prevent the spread of his massive stupidity. He’s given new meaning to the term #Masshole. (Finally, something the president and I can agree on!)”

Massie had his defenders, even among those who did not side with him when the House rejected his roll-call request and approved the $2 trillion package in a voice vote. That’s important, because what’s at stake involves more than a single representative’s objection that “I came here to make sure our republic doesn’t die by unanimous consent in an empty chamber.”

This is about the need to keep Congress fully functional, as a distinct and meaningful branch of government in this moment of national uncertainty and need. The House, in particular, cannot stand down and leave governing to President Trump. Maintaining a congressional check and balance requires both technical and constitutional clarity.

The technical side is relatively easy. The House and Senate need to rapidly reconstruct congressional rules and procedures so that members can vote from home. Local governments around the country are already conducting meetings electronically. “How can we insist that members should fly in to DC that is sheltering in place to push a button to vote?” asks Representative Ro Khanna. His answer: “Congress can work remotely in emergencies.”

Khanna’s right. For reasons of public health and representative democracy, Congress must “get into the 21st century.”

The constitutional clarity involves a deeper recognition that in a time so consequential as this, when fundamental decisions about our safety and economy are being made, we need more congressional debate, and action—not less.

Members of Congress left Washington at the end of last week and are not scheduled to return until April 20 at the earliest, with expectations that the absence could extend to the end of April, or even longer.

That’s too long. There has to be an electronic fix that allows Congress to serve as a fully realized branch of government in this critical moment. There is a crying need for another stimulus bill to address the failures of the measures that have already been passed. Congress must keep wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak. A sense of urgency should guide its work—whether members are physically present or working remotely.

There will, of course, be moments when it is necessary to balance immediate demands—like those for aid to hospitals, local governments, and unemployed workers that were, to some extent, addressed in the Senate bill—against respect for the rules and practices of the House. Sometimes that balance will err on the side of speed rather than precise adherence to tradition.

But if the balance errs against honest debate and the accountability that comes with roll-call votes, we run the risk of losing our say regarding decisions that could save our lives—and that will shape the rest of our lives. Just as we must defend our own First Amendment right to dissent and debate in the public square, so we must demand that our congressional representatives respect the value of dissent and debate on the actual floor of the House—and on the virtual floor of a remotely connected House.

In a representative democracy, congressional debate must continue even in the most difficult of times—as must committee hearings, oversight work, and roll-call votes. This is not a new concept. More than a century ago, during World War I, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette was vilified for demanding that Congress consider the human, economic, and social costs of war. His answer came in the form of one of the greatest addresses ever delivered in the US Capitol, “Free Speech in Wartime.” In it, he said:

I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But sir, the right to control their own Government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war.

Rather in time of war the citizen must be more alert to the preservation of his right to control his Government. He must be most watchful of the encroachment of the military upon the civil power. He must beware of those precedents in support of arbitrary action by administrative officials, which excused on the plea of necessity in war time, become the fixed rule when the necessity has passed and normal conditions have been restored.

The fight to contain Covid-19 is not a war in any conventional sense. But it has raised many of the challenges of wartime. We may update La Follette modestly to: “Beware of those precedents in support of arbitrary action by administrative officials, which excused on the plea of necessity in a pandemic time, become the fixed rule when the necessity has passed and normal conditions have been restored.”

There should be better ways for the Congress to consider $2 trillion spending packages that are laden with corporate welfare schemes than unanimous consent—or a hurried voice vote by members who make it to Washington in time.

This was the point that Representative Massie was making, and it can be respected without deferring to him on matters of policy.

Massie is a contrarian, in his own party and in the Congress. He’s been right before on civil liberties and war and peace—joining frequently with Representative Barbara Lee to demand that presidents consult Congress before launching military assaults—just as he’s been wrong on spending for human needs. It’s not necessary to try to make him a hero. But it appropriate to note that when the House was preparing to take up the Senate bill, the Kentuckian was not alone in expressing frustration with reports that Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted unanimous consent—meaning that members would not debate or vote on it.

As the Senate was finishing its deliberations, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she had not ruled out calling for a recorded vote in the House. Expressing concern about the stimulus bill’s bias in favor of corporate bailouts, she said, “With the health risks of travel [for representatives who would have to fly back for the vote], there is no easy choice here. But essential workers are showing up and putting their health at risk every day, and if the final text of a bill is set up to hurt them, it may be something we have to do.”

Ultimately, Ocasio-Cortez did not demand a roll-call vote. But, she did deliver a blistering statement on the House floor, as part of the short discussion that preceded Friday’s voice vote.

She recognized the urgency of congressional action. “I represent one of the hardest-hit communities in the hardest-hit city in this country, Queens, New York,” she explained. “Thirteen dead in a night in Elmhurst Hospital alone. Our community’s reality is this country’s future if we don’t do anything. Hospital workers do not have protective equipment. We don’t have the necessary ventilators.”

“But,” she said of deliberations on the stimulus bill, “we have to go into this vote eyes wide open. What did the Senate majority fight for? One of the largest corporate bailouts with as few strings as possible in American history. Shameful! The greed of that fight is wrong. For crumbs for our families. And the option that we have is to either let them suffer with nothing or to allow this greed and billions of dollars which will be leveraged into trillions of dollars to contribute to the largest income inequality gap in our future.”

Ocasio-Cortez concluded, “There should be shame about what was fought for in this bill and the choices that we have to make.”

The choice was an awful one. It merited deliberations that might have expanded those options. At the least, it merited debate and a roll-call vote. As La Follette said of World War I: “A minor duty may be evaded by Congress, a minor responsibility avoided without disaster resulting, but on this momentous question there can be no evasion, no shirking of duty of the Congress, without subverting our form of government.”

When trillions of dollars are being spent, when fundamental questions about the nation’s economy and its future are decided, Congress should be fully engaged. In an emergency, that engagement may be virtual. But the debate should be real, the dissent should be heard, and the roll-call votes should be conducted.

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