DADT and Parliamentary Procedure: a Historical Perspective

History is a tricky thing. On one hand, those who do not study it they say are destined to repeat it. On the other hand, interpreting history is a subjective exercise and often done in remarkably one-dimensional, self-serving manner. I generally avoid the use historical paradigms on this website largely for this reason. Because as an amateur student of history, I am all too aware of how nuance gives way to silly posturing, straw men and logical fallacies conveniently packaged as history lessons.

It is also for this reason that I have been unable to address the Tea Party movement in any meaningful way. I’ve discussed its members, I’ve discussed some electoral politics here, on the DFE FaceBook Page and on the Twitter feed. But I have yet to have addressed the movement as an object on its own, because I find the whole historical inspiration of the movement too insulting and infuriating to manage to piece together a cohesive argument. I don’t begrudge them their beliefs or political leanings; I don’t begrudge them their solidarity. Hell, I don’t even begrudge them their oft-disavowed but painfully omnipresent racism and xenophobia: such things don’t need my help to collapse under their own weight. But I do begrudge them their historical premise.

Let the Average Joe Tea Party go. But I really want to ask Dick Armey and the leaders of the various strands of the Tea Party movement, “do you really think – honestly? truly? – that Britons killed Britons over tea? Do you really believe – honestly? truly? – that Britons killed Britons over a modest increase in the nominal tax rate for high-earners? And do you seriously believe that Samuel Adams could have mustered the support of twelve other colonies to break from the Mother Country over a health insurance plan? If not, how is this whole Tea Party thing not just a little bit insulting to our Founders?”

But nuance, as usual, gives way to silly posturing. And in this case, hats.

Certainly, the Revolution was sparked by taxes and certainly it was instigated with brush fires like the Boston Tea Party. But even closer to the source of the actual friction between Britain and the Colonies was Parliament’s self-aggrandizing obsession with it’s own rules and procedures, at the expense of its actual duty to govern the country. We know the phrase “no taxation without representation in Parliament,” but what is less-well understood is that Parliament was not blindly ignoring the complaints of the American Colonies: it was operating under a set of rules it believed genuinely covered the Colonies without the need to adjust the way it did business. The charter that founded Parliament accomplished two necessary functions of a democracy. First, it established the Parliament as representative of the citizens of Britain. Second, it established Parliament as the sole origin of the laws that governed the whole of the British Empire. But when that charter was written, it didn’t take into account a large population of Britons now living in a conquered part of the Empire as indigenous people. There was no “redistricting” the British Parliament.

So at loggerheads were two entirely correct propositions: the common understanding of representative democracy on the American side and the supremacy of the Parliament as a legal body on the other. But in response to this growing and seemingly obvious contradiction, Parliament chose to worship its own rules and procedures rather than address any concern outside of them. That the American condition was in direct conflict with the founding principles of the Parliament – principles for which many commoners very much like the American Colonists fought and died – was of less importance to the Parliament than the orderly adherence to the rules that had governed it since then. And in response to the growing unrest across the ocean, the Parliament whose sovereignty over the Colonies lay at the heart of the conflict opted to pass more soveriegn laws: the Townshend Acts, the Stamp Act and finally the suite of nearly unenforceable Acts known as the Coersive Acts.

One lesson that might be taken from this history is that a parliamentary body more interested in itself than its job will leave an alienated populace to take matters into it’s own hands. Does that mean revolution? Of course not. But it is a lesson in disenfranchisement of a type that, for all the bluster, pomp and circumstance of Washington, I personally never really thought we would see in this country. Until recently.

Because when we view history and the present through this lens, what are we to make of Susan Collins’ decision to block the revocation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? She is not an opponent of the fight against the discriminatory law that forces soldiers to lie about who they are. Indeed, she is a full-throated supporter of the effort. She doesn’t have any objection to the DREAM Act, either. There doesn’t seem to have been a single issue in the defense spending package with which she had a difference. Not a moral objection. Not a single ethical disagreement. And she would have had the support of an overwhelming majority of American voters, as well. The sole objection upon which she declared her willingness to join in the Republican filibuster was…. parliamentary procedure. That Democrats opted not to allow any more Republican amendments to a spending bill. And in retaliation for an extra-Constitutional parliamentary procedure she found unjust, she chose to support yet another extra-Constitutional parliamentary procedure.

For all the impassioned speech-giving prior to casting her vote, it boils down to taking her job as a Senator more seriously than her job as a lawmaker for the American people and those she represents. Say what you will about the pre-Revolutionary British Parliament, they at least passed and argued over laws. Susan Collins held civil rights of gays and innocent child-imigrants back from history for who knows how long because of arbitrary rules setup in the Senate which have no basis in law whatsoever.

Of course it isn’t the only example. If it was, this would be an isolated incident we could just leave aside. But Washington is starting to look more and more like a place completely unprepared to fulfill its duties, and that is especially true in the House and Senate, where the day to day football of the Congress matters much more than the 10% unemployment rate, the faltering housing market, the runaway banks, the crushed working man and oh, yeah: the will of the governed.