Silence by U.S. Senators, including those from Kansas, has put our democracy in danger

November 24, 2020 3:33 am
U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, Kansas Republicans, joined with former U.S. Sen. Robert Dole to endorse GOP U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall for Roberts' seat in the U.S. Senate. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is retiring, has little to lose by speaking out on the results of the presidential election but has remained silent, writes his former chief of staff, Leroy Towns. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Leroy Towns served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts until 2003.

Fresh off his election victory, one of the U.S. Senate’s incoming members, Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, pronounced the three branches of government to be the House, the Senate and the Executive.

While Tuberville missed the civics lesson that includes our judiciary in the three branches of government and stresses the Senate’s role in providing checks and balances, his uninformed opinion may matter little. The Senate’s role in providing checks on the executive has so eroded that we are faced today with a Senate majority that would rather kowtow to a president attempting to illegally overturn his defeat than advocate for public acceptance of the results of a national election.

I served more than 20 years as chief of staff to Pat Roberts of Kansas, during his time as a U.S. Representative and Senator. While that does not make me a constitutional expert on the Senate, it does give me a unique perspective on decades of changes that put the government today on the edge of a genuine crisis of democracy.

The changes have been so dramatic that I recognize neither the institution in which I once served as a senior staffer nor the players, including senators themselves, who seem to have abandoned their constitutional roles for raw and uninformed politics.

America’s founding fathers envisioned the U.S. Senate as a proper check on executive excess and endowed it with the power to advise and consent, among other powers, on presidential appointments. Blessed with the luxury of six-year terms, senators were seen as wise heads above the fray with plenty of time to ponder issues and ideas. That served well for more than 200 years.

Today, it is broken. Senators, by their failure to speak out on such basic constitutional issues as free and fair elections, contributed to more than 75% of Republicans believing the election of Joe Biden was corrupt. If our democracy depends on the willingness of losers to recognize defeat, our democracy is in trouble.

There are plenty of other warning signs. Senators decried President Obama’s use of executive orders but did little to reassert their own power in the process. President Trump amplified use of executive orders and openly defied the need for Senate confirmation by using non-confirmed acting appointments. Again there was little protest from the Senate, whose silence gave away important power. And the most basic Senate obligation — confirming members of the judiciary — has become much less about advise and consent and much more about politics.

Unlike members of the House, individual senators have immense power. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for example, once stopped the confirmation of military officer promotions for months over his concern about a Boeing contract with the Air Force.

Senators, on their own, could change this decline. Yet they have abdicated their individual power by silence and by failing to act.

Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran intends to seek a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2020, apparently deciding not to pursue the GOP nomination for Kansas governor. (Submitted)
The longer they serve, U.S. senators, such as Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, are increasingly unwilling to buck the “club,” writes Leroy Towns. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

Political scientists are hard at work figuring out what happened and what is to be done. But consider this:

Senators who once were joined at the hip with constituents of their home states are now distant players in a national political drama. This has been a sudden shift in the last couple of decades as both parties became weaker in states and more national in outlook. Trends — like populism and the religious and Tea Party takeover of Republicans — stood on its head the adage that all politics is local. Today all politics is national.

The trend has been exacerbated by news deserts in most states that left citizens getting their trusted news not from good reporters at the state capital but from national sources. Many of those sources, as we know, peddle ideological misinformation instead of facts, which is then amplified by social media. It sets up a perfect spiral to the political bottom.

Senate elections once relied on local staffers, local funding and state-specific messaging and outreach. Today, senate elections are managed, staffed, financed and messaged out of the Washington, D.C., offices of party bosses and interest groups.

Is it any wonder these senators are more beholden to the hand that elects them — the party bosses and interest groups — than they are even to the citizens of their home state? They become members of the Senate “club” and their willingness to buck the club decreases with longevity.

The grip is strong, even holding hostage senators like the retiring Roberts and the recently defeated Cory Gardner of Colorado, both of whom now have much less to lose by defying their party.

For the first time in modern history, the Senate Republican majority has — by silence — failed to recognize the legitimate winner of a presidential election.

As of the weekend, only a handful of GOP senators had defied the President to recognize the election. The silence of the other erodes the public’s confidence in the 2020 election as free, fair and legitimate. That sets up a crisis, maybe short term, but most certainly longer term, of public trust in democracy.

Remember, democracy exists only so long as it has the consent of the governed.

The remedy, at least in part, starts with a U.S. Senate that performs the constitutional duty our founding fathers envisioned — a check and balance on the presidency.

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Leroy Towns
Leroy Towns

Leroy Towns worked as a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Kansas Harris Newspapers. He served as press secretary to Kansas Governor Robert Bennett and as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. He is a professor of the practice emeritus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he taught political reporting and political communication. A graduate of Kansas State University and the George Washington University, he is retired and splits his time between Manhattan, Kansas, and Florida.