Sunday, March 20, 2011

Embarrassing, Indeed.

There was an “embarrassing” moment on the floor of the House of Representatives the other day. Congressman Dan Burton finished a speech and was ready to hand over his time to Representative Louie Gohmert… who was nowhere to be found. Rather than move on with the business of the House, or, horror of horrors, allow a Democrat to speak, Burton was, to use the term employed in virtually every story on this I’ve read, “forced” to ad lib, badly, for ten minutes.

Matt Schneider at Mediaite summarizes the episode thus:
Burton was clearly uncomfortable having to come up with ten minutes of material, but provided much humorous commentary as he admitted “this is embarrassing.” Given that Gohmert was so late, Burton wondered out loud, “oh it’s St. Patrick’s day, you don’t think he’s been having a little green libation do you?” Then he predicted what Gohmert might be speaking about and suggested he looks forward to the speech, “after I hit him in the nose for not being here on time.” In between a series of awkward silences, we also got to learn that Burton likes movies about Irish dancers, as he encouraged everyone to go see a new movie.
Afterwards, Burton promised that next time, he’ll have a litany of jokes to tell. Asked if Gohmert owed him a St. Patrick’s Day beer, Burton quipped (to use that term very loosely), that “I don’t think he can afford it; he’s from Texas.” (Note to Rep. Burton: Gohmert gets paid by the hated federal government; it’s the rest of us in East Texas who are struggling a little.)

A Gohmert spokesperson responded as follows:
Rep. Louie Gohmert was told by the time manager in the Republican cloakroom he could not have the Republican’s one-hour time slot because Rep. Burton wanted the entire Republican hour.

In addition to this, Rep Gohmert was informed Rep. Burton was going to use the entire hour and was going to yield to other speakers during this hour. The Congressman was also instructed that he would not have to report to the House floor until Rep. Burton was 45-50 minutes into his speech.

Our office received a frantic call from the Republican cloakroom saying Burton was not going to be using his full hour, finishing up 30 minutes earlier than expected. Congressman Gohmert was urged to rush to the floor.

In a meeting at the time, Rep. Gohmert did as he was directed and dropped everything to get to the House floor. He was not late for the time originally assigned to him.
Gentle Reader, I assure you that I would love to have this episode play out as a petty squabble between two Congressmen I consider among the biggest buffoons in a GOP particularly well stocked with that commodity. But it strikes me that there’s nothing really new here, and that is the problem.

This isn’t a Republican phenomenon. I can’t cite chapter and verse, but I’m willing to bet this sort of thing happens not infrequently, with the featured players from both sides of the aisle. Moreover, I suspect that this was one of those errors of communication that happen all the time. What bothers me is the whole matter-of-factness of it all.

Even the gloating left-leaning press used that word “forced.” Why? Who forced Burton to do anything? What would yielding the remainder of his time have meant? That the proceedings would move a little faster? That someone from the other side might get a few minutes more to blather than our side did because we screwed up? (Let’s face it, the GOP is going to win any vote they want in the House, so we’re not talking real results here.) No, what Burton was willing to make an utter ass of himself for was to ensure that Gohmert, who had already de facto agreed to give Burton all the time he wanted, still got face time.

Note also that Burton’s set-piece was so mistimed that he finished a half hour early! And this for “prepared remarks”! How long has he been doing this? (Answer to rhetorical question: 28 years, not counting his time in the state legislature.) And he misses by 50%? When I give a conference paper, I can tell you going in how long it will be to within 30 seconds. How? Well, I practice it, for one thing. For another, I have done a few of those presentations, and I’ve learned how to predict. For Burton to miss his anticipated time by that much is a sign of laziness at best.

As for Gohmert, well, where the hell was he? “In a meeting” could be literally true, or it could be a euphemism. It doesn’t matter. What strikes me about this is that he saw no need to hear Rep. Burton’s remarks, presumably on a topic on which he himself intended to speak. I suppose it’s better to ignore one’s allies than one’s opponents, but still… (I’m sure that neither Gohmert nor most of the rest of Congressional delegations from either party pay much attention to anyone but themselves.) And, of course, that means that nobody was going to listen to Gohmert, either. There’s something more than a little narcissistic about the whole venture. Those C-SPAN shots of grave-faced legislators solemnly urging their totally absent colleagues to support this bill or oppose that one take on a bit more piquancy.

The House of Representatives, then, is confirmed not to be a deliberative body where opposing viewpoints are contrasted, opinions shaped, and compromises broached. Rather, the House floor is nothing more or less than a site for cynical self-promotion. Representatives can’t be bothered to hear each other’s arguments, and taking only 30 minutes to say what could no doubt be said in 10 becomes a problem.

I assure you that I am not so naïve that I did not already know all of this. I know that the real work, when Congress actually deigns to do any, takes place in offices and committee rooms, and sometimes on the driving range. It is discouraging, however, to have a no doubt romanticized view of Congressional debate shown to be so clearly fictitious. More problematic to me is that Rep. Burton was embarrassed for himself and perhaps for his tardy colleague, but not for the sorry display of business-as-usual his little tap-dance number exemplified. After all, if he ever faces that situation again, he’ll be ready with jokes. Because shutting up and sitting down just isn’t an option.

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