“‘…their only power was to make noise,’ nonetheless ‘it was an uncomfortable noise that grated upon the ears and, in time, the national conscience…’”
– Aide to Former Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson reflecting on pro-civil rights senators of the 1950s
The country is enduring massive cultural upheaval, creating tensions that rightly make us all uncomfortable, at very least.
Some negative outcomes have ensued – violence should never be condoned – but, at its core, what’s happening is good. It’s stretching our national conscience, which is healthy for democracy. Our country’s institutions are designed to withstand and improve amidst unrest. But it can’t be achieved on autopilot.
Woodrow Wilson, in his Congressional Government study (1885) noted, “the only really self-governing people is that people which discusses and interrogates its administration” (Wilson also infamously had his own problems with racial issues). Likewise, this moment demands that federal leadership acknowledge and perform rigorous oversight over the laws that selectively disadvantage citizens.
Now is an opportunity for elected officials to strengthen our democracy by building trust in the institutions that have failed communities of color.
The path to reconciliation begins with the ‘informing function’
Congress is instilled with an informing function, which is “the means by which Congress has collected, processed and acted on information vital to its role as national legislature over the past two centuries.”
Wilson said the informing function is “…implicit in the committee system itself. Congress investigates in order to inform themselves…and the public, of conditions and events that are of public concern. The public must have the facts if legislation is to command public understanding and support.”
More existential than mere oversight, the informing function is introspection on the national level.
In today’s context, it is the formal public floor and committee deliberation where open acknowledgement of past and ongoing wrongs are thoroughly aired. This lays the groundwork for re-building trust in the institutions that have harbored racial disparities and reminds us that our democracy is responsive to its constituents, that it works for everyone and not just those who administer it.
To that end, Senate leadership should formally organize its members around a national conversation that holds as its premise the acknowledgement of racial inequalities and gives voice to communities of color in a way that fully unmasks a misguided criminal justice system. This means consolidating congressional working groups already underway into a cohesive effort that properly sets the record straight in order to create meaningful policy reform. The discussion should carefully examine the Black Lives Matter movement’s many voices through the lens of our laws and the current administration’s policies and postures.
The informing function has its roots in the civil rights debates
Congress during the Civil Rights era was not initially helpful to people of color. Legislative remedies for racial inequalities were regularly defeated, leaving the movement’s advocates with only their voices to make a difference. “Informing” fellow senators, e.g. speaking truth to power, became their only recourse.
But the power of words spoken boldly to reluctant listeners is compelling.
The historian Robert Caro recounted one senator’s view of this duty from the minority party perspective: “Senator Paul Douglas believed in the Senate’s ‘informing function,’ and that ‘even if every battle was unsuccessful, constant but peaceful struggle would hasten the ultimate coming of needed reforms.’”
In describing the approach of pro-civil rights senators, Caro told of a former Senate aide who said, “‘…their only power was to make noise,’ nonetheless, ‘it was an uncomfortable noise that grates upon the ears and, in time, the national conscience…’”
How much more powerful would it be if the majority party – Senate Republicans – led a bipartisan effort with the same approach?
Healing racial wrongs must begin with the very institutions that enabled them to flourish.
As the most representative branch of government and the one charged with legislative duties, Congress is well positioned to lead. As Wilson went on to write, “[Congress] is meant to be the eye and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and the will of its constituents.”
It falls naturally upon Republicans – as the majority party in the Senate, the same party as the president and with a checkered track record on race relations – to step into the void left by the White House by giving the public debate an official platform on a highly visible political stage. If it fails to act, the Republican Party risks losing its long-term relevance.
We should be encouraged by senators like Mitt Romney (R-UT) who symbolically walked alongside BLM protestors, and James Lankford (R-OK) who proactively engaged with the black community in the wake of the protests, holding roundtables to explore deep rooted discrimination. More of these personal efforts led by individual senators are needed, but it’s only a first step.
More importantly, the Senate must act collectively to restore trust in our institutions by engaging the informing function to validate what protestors have made us painfully aware of. Now is the chance for Republicans to demonstrate they’re fit to lead by giving voice to those who have gone unheard and by uncovering, articulating and dismantling the historic causes of racial disparities throughout all aspects of society.
That is the leadership we need, and the informing function can facilitate its broadcast to a watching nation and lead to long overdue change.