BERNSTEIN: Impeachment shows how partisan U.S. Senate is
Column: Mind You
The President Donald J. Trump impeachment trial, the third impeachment trial in the U.S. history, concluded in an acquittal on charges that he had abused his executive power and obstructed Congress by withholding aid to Ukraine for political ends on Feb. 5.
Trump’s impeachment marks the critical point of the most divisive presidency in modern American politics. More important than the charges themselves against Trump, are the precedents and implications set by the trial proceedings and aftermath: As a country, we have been forced to accept a trial without witnesses, an administration which has taken vengeance openly on those who sought to bring relevant information to light and, most concerning of all, a Senate which has failed in its capacity as a trustee body for the American people.
Senators, unlike members of the House of Representatives, are meant to serve as trustees instead of delegates: Rather than act as the voice of their state’s citizens (as delegates do), they are supposed to apply their legal experience and expertise to matters of policy with less consideration for what the public thinks.
Obtaining a seat in the Senate requires that one meet stricter age and citizenship requirements than House of Representatives members, and senators’ longer congressional terms give them more freedom to act against the preferences of their constituents if they think a better decision exists in the service of the United States.
The United States established such a bicameral legislature in order to strike a balance between the sentiment that private citizens’ voices ought to be heard in government, and the acknowledgment that sometimes we should leave policy decisions to the experts. Of course, not everybody agrees with the trustee/delegate format of governing, especially in light of perceived political corruption. Recently, the Senate has received criticism regarding its capacity to act as good-faith trustees.
The recent impeachment sums up this criticism quite well.
On the one hand, an impeachment trial should serve as a prime example of an instance when legislative officials act as trustees rather than delegates. They have more information about impeachment than the public does. Their task is to assess the governing capability and legal standing of the president, not whether they align with his politics. Since they take on the role of jurors instead of politicians, they should not be swayed in their decisions by the opinion of the public.
But the Trump impeachment trial brimmed with at least as much partisan vitriol and political jockeying as the business-as-usual of modern Congress. Senate majority leader and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) openly expressed his refusal to take charges that the president sought a political advantage through the extortion of a foreign power seriously. Only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), voted to remove Trump from office.
Since Trump’s acquittal, Republicans in Congress and in various conservative interest groups have reproached Romney and threatened his political career.
Such blatant politicization of an impeachment should disturb Americans, whether or not they support Trump. Has the Senate grown so cynical about the public’s trust in its judgment that it bases every decision on its constituents’ preferences? Has ideology trumped (forgive the pun) a respect for the pursuit of objective truth?
Certainly no senator concerned with the facts surrounding the impeachment would have objected to the introduction of new information into trial proceedings. Why, then, were pertinent witnesses prevented from testifying? A competent and self-validating legislative body would take seriously any impeachment charges against a sitting president. It would seem, then, that we have a Senate neither capable nor confident in its own capability.
When I first considered the issue of the Senate and the Trump impeachment, my mind jumped to the possibility of an anonymous vote. For reasons already mentioned, impeachment is perhaps the only situation in which the decisions of senators need not necessarily fall under the scrutiny of American citizens.
But such a move in the current political climate would have registered as a paradox, both an attempt to remove politics from the impeachment and an admission that current senators lack the thick-skinned prudence required of trustees who would make decisions without the input of voters. A trustee body working outside the visual field of the public eye has already failed.
Now more than ever does our country seem unwilling to tolerate a trustee body, and no greater culprit than the Senate itself stands to blame for this attitude. A fundamental shift in the Senate must take place in order to bolster the effectiveness and dignity of the American legislature, one which takes into account both the growing distrust of politicians by the public and the need for lawmakers unencumbered by partisan pressures.
While placing term limits on Congress members and divorcing corporate money from politics would certainly help to quell political polarization and corruption, we also need to renew goodwill between the people and their government.
We must expect more from our politicians not as partisan sycophants, but as dispassionate vanguards of the United States.
Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.
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