Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mr. Akaka

The Washington Post on Thursday noted that in the current Senate, over 32% of total session time was spent on quorum calls. In practice, this usually entails calling the name of the first Senator alphabetically- in this case, Daniel Akaka of Hawaii- and then sitting around doing nothing because every single Senator is off doing something else. Maybe they're in a committee meeting. Maybe they're in their office. Maybe they're in their home state. Maybe they're in a round of Team Fortress 2. They're not on the Senate floor is what matters, and so C-SPAN plays classical music just to break up the static image on the screen.

The Post shows this as nothing getting done. And really, not much is. The Senate is only barely functional at this particular juncture and the increase in quorum call time is a reflection of that. But I would argue that there is a silver lining here.

The quorum calls serve to cut down on what I've come to call 'kabuki theater'.

I've used the phrase before, but I've never really delved too much into just what kabuki theater is. Kabuki theater is any political event that looks good for the cameras, that gives the media something to do and something to debate, but functionally accomplishes little and serves little practical purpose. It is anything that is a functional waste of everyone's time that could better be spent doing something else.

Kabuki theater is the daily White House press briefing that breaks no news and features a man who is very possibly the most out of the loop of anyone in the White House.

Kabuki theater is the debate featuring candidates who have memorized heavily scripted responses to every question the moderator is likely to ask, methods of railroading an unanticipated question back into scripted territory, and finely-tuned zingers to use in response to the response you have been briefed that your opponent will give, all of which results in the debate invariably being called a tie.

Kabuki theater is any speech given on a legislative chamber floor to an empty room.

Kabuki theater is any debate taking place on a legislative chamber floor the occurs despite all involved knowing at that moment exactly how everyone will vote regardless of what is being said, and who is going to get their way when all is said and done.

Kabuki theater is any debate on a political talk show that consists entirely of everyone yelling over each other and ends after five minutes with 'we'll have to leave it there' and a commercial break.

Kabuki theater is the default setting for most politicians skilled enough to make it to the federal level, any time they think there's a camera around. (Emphasis on 'skilled enough'. If this year has shown us one thing about state-level politics, it is that state legislatures are comparable to the minor leagues. There are people at that level who just aren't talented or seasoned enough to make it at the higher level, and you can see why.)

Kabuki theater, by definition, does not happen when everyone thinks the cameras are off.

This puts us in a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, if the things that happen on-camera are contrived and functionally useless, it would logically pay to put politics off-camera more often, or at least make it appear off-camera. After all, if there's no camera, kabuki theater cannot exist.

On the other hand, doing so would mean we have less of an idea what they're doing, and trying to eliminate most- maybe any- of these elements outright would probably just result in a lot of talk about smoke-filled backrooms and the Death of an Informed Populace. Who knows whose votes are being changed or even bought? And what, or who, made them change sides?

The solution really depends on the situation. What's the mentality of the people currently in office. remember that this is a job where the employees are in a constant mental arms race with each other. Anything put in place to solve Problem A will, sooner or later, be met with Loophole B. The rules and conventions thus have to shift and adapt to whatever legislative mentality may arise.

It also depends what you want out of your government. What attributes, if you had to choose, do you value over others. Do you most value openness? Do you most value compromise? Do you most value the quick passage of bills? Do you most value politicians simply buckling down and getting to work? Each answer requires different solutions.

There may even be the odd person that thinks, given the specific batch of people in office, the less they do, the better, and so the more time spent on kabuki theater, the less time spent actually passing bills. But it's reasonable to think that these people are in the vast minority.

The specific solutions aren't easy. I'm not going to promise anything of the sort. But the one thing that is certain is that simply stomping one's feet and going 'Fix it NOW! Shame on you!' isn't really going to help. Just yelling at them to stop the kabuki theater isn't going to make them stop. That's not enough. You need a plan. (You can always vote the offenders out, but remember that's far from a cure-all. The replacements may very well bring problems of their own.)
In the two previous pieces concerning kabuki theater, I put plans forward for press briefings and debates.

It might be that quorum calls are the solution to useless, time-wasting speeches on the Senate floor. The Senators once conducted most or all of their business from their desks on the floor, and now they have other venues of business as well. But then again, it might not. The time-wasting kabuki theater speeches can and will still be given, but at a later time or date.

I really am stuck on a solution, or even if there is a solution to be had. Aside from 'vote them out', any ideas?

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