Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Victor in the primary and then in the general election, what is a nonpartisan Republican or Democrat to do in Congress? Whether in House or Senate, the reception is likely to be cold and there will be very few of you, if any, beside yourself. You will receive your assignments to standing committees, where the real work of Congress is done, through your party caucus, and for a nonpartisan, let alone a freshman, they are likely to be unimportant. So you must make your impact outside committees. On occasion you may make an important statement in testifying before a committee, as Senator Burton K. Wheeler did in 1937 when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bolstered by a letter that he produced from Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and liberal Justice Louis D. Brandeis, he helped to derail FDR’s Supreme Court Packing Plan. You may not be welcome in your party’s caucus if party leaders deem you too thorny; they may expel and strip you of such significant committee assignments as you may have acquired. Party leaders have from time to time used these punishments against party rebels. There may, one may hope, come a time when your public status is such that party leaders have to treat you with respect, even as to your seniority, but that will depend importantly on the constancy of your constituents’ support. Each of the Part I insurgent quintet enjoyed such support campaign after campaign. Such respect, however, will not preclude party leadership from persistent efforts to unseat you in primaries, as many of the quintet could attest.

That said, you can nevertheless be a significant force for good in Congress. Sadly, much of that good will consist in thwarting bad. As Senator Wayne Morse put it: “A true liberal can’t limit himself to a few areas. He must be on guard everywhere, ready to pounce on evil wherever it raises its ugly head.”

The greatest positive impact that a nonpartisan can make is to choose one major problem area that Congress has not addressed adequately or in depth, if at all, and become expert in it, develop a reasonable position on it if it proves amenable to your doing so, and then become a vigorous advocate for that position – in speeches in and out of Congress, in releases to, interviews and appearances in the media – who should seize upon and publicize something likely to be controversial – but especially in direct approaches to the public, to build support and pressure on your colleagues that can lead to action. Indeed, it would be well if the nonpartisan were to reach that position before entering the primary, and make it a defining campaign plank there and in the general election.

Circumstances have at long last forced Congress to face up to some of these issues, which are now being actively debated by experienced advocates on all sides, issues such as energy policy and global warming; preemptive war, nation-building and the respective roles of commander-in-chief and Congress in ordering, controlling and financing combat; the integrity of civil liberties in the fight against terrorism; immigration policy. But there are other crucial issues aplenty for nonpartisans to take up “to provide for the general welfare”: national health care; education; fiscal responsibility; tax policy and the drift toward oligarchy; the role of money in politics; the role of the United States in the United Nations and in world affairs; transportation; the drug problem; globalization of trade, manufacturing, and labor; apportionment of Congressional districts – the list goes on and on.

The point is to concentrate on one issue at a time, not to spread efforts thinly over several. Following the example of Senator George W. Norris, you will need patience, learn to swallow disappointment, take support where you find it, form or join ad hoc caucuses in support, be prepared to compromise to form alliances and to hold them together.

Keep Churchill’s watchword before you: Never give up! It took Norris years and years to see his policy of public ownership of model hydroelectric power utilities enacted into law and for his Twentieth Amendment to be adopted.

A Modest Proposal has here been addressing people whom it urges to run as nonpartisans, but it is also aware that an occasional incumbent, already in Congress, may decide to embrace nonpartisanship openly for the future. In essence, that is what each of the Part I insurgent quintet did.

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