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GOP Congress Stands Silent — Where Are the Voices of Conscience?

Children are taken from the arms of their parents at the U.S. border. The Prime Minister of Canada is called “very dishonest and weak,” while the brutal North Korean dictator is described as “talented” and “honorable. The American free press is declared “the enemy of the people.” The investigation being conducted by a special counsel with the Department of Justice into the interference in the U.S. elections by Russia and culpability of the Trump campaign is repeatedly derided as a “witch hunt” and accused of being an effort to “frame” the president. And a seemingly endless list of unprecedented, chaotic, impulsive, and outrageous acts is carried out by the president and his administration.

And still, the Republican Congress stands silent.

Enough is enough.

Where is the great tradition of the U.S. Senate and its oversight of the executive branch? Where are the voices of conscience?

Sixty-eight years ago, this month, Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) stood on the floor of the United States Senate and declared, “I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership either in the legislative branch or the executive branch of our government.”

Senator Smith went on to say, “I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some real soul searching and to weigh our consciences as to the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America and the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges. I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.”

Senator Smith, objecting to the abusive lies put forward by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) called for a Republican victory to replace the Truman Administration, but warned, “…[T]o displace it with a Republican regime embracing a philosophy that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to the nation… I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny-Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

She could well have been speaking about the present president and administration. But, disappointingly no senator from today’s Republican Party has been willing to stand up to President Donald Trump. The exceptions, Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), are retiring at the end of this Congress and so their criticisms don’t spark much support from their colleagues. Corker, for example, authored legislation to reign in Trump’s controversial tariffs which the president claims are required to protect the national security. Corker’s own leader, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) quickly indicated that he would not bring the bill to the Senate floor declaring, “I don't think we need to be trying to rein in the president through legislation. Number one, it would be an exercise in futility because he wouldn't sign it."

Tragically, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) the most likely Republican to stand up and oppose the president as a matter of conscience, ill with cancer, is in Arizona fighting for his life.

Thirty-one years ago, next month, although Lt. Col. Oliver North testified to the Iran Contra Committee that he had previously lied to Congress, a New York Times-CBS News poll taken in the wake of the North testimony showed 43 percent viewed North favorable and only 14 percent unfavorably. 62 percent believed he was telling the truth. The wave of positive feeling toward North was widely described as “Olliemania.”

Unintimidated, Senator George Mitchell (D-ME) challenged North. He sternly declared, “Although he's regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism. Indeed, it's the very fact that Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.”

Again, today such advice to the president from Capitol Hill is sorely needed. As the whole world watches the spectacle of U.S. officials tearing children from the arms of their mothers many of whom have committed no crime by seeking asylum in America, where are strong voices raised by Senate Republicans?

As the president demeans the special counsel, the Assistant Attorney General, and the Attorney General himself, where are the GOP senators? The president labels the investigation a “witch hunt” over and over again, ignoring the 20 people and three companies indicted, including the president’s first national security advisor and the chairman of his presidential campaign. The president toys with the idea of firing the special counsel, or the leaders of the Justice Department, or pardoning Mueller’s targets, perhaps even including the president himself, and asserts that he cannot be subpoenaed by a federal grand jury. The Republicans in the Senate are silent.

When he labels the legitimate, fact-based reporting of major respected U.S. media “fake news” even as he promotes assertions again and again not based in fact, where are the voices of conscience?

I love the Senate. I spent most of my adult life working for senators. The looming failure of the checks and balances the Founders relied upon to protect our democracy distresses me greatly.

Enough is enough. Senators, we are watching you.

Richard A. Arenberg is a Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University. He worked for Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-MA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) for 34 years. He served on the Senate Iran-Contra Committee in 1987. Arenberg was co-author of the award-winning "Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate" named “Book of the Year in Political Science” by Foreword Reviews in 2012. A 2nd edition was published in 2014. He is the author of the forthcoming "Congressional Procedure: A Practical Guide to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress." U.S. Senate Historical Office published “Richard A. Arenberg: Oral History Interviews” in 2011. He serves on the Board of Directors of Social Security Works and the Social Security Education Fund. He is an affiliate at the Taubman Center for American Politics & Policy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Providence Journal, and The Boston Globe. He is a Contributor at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @richarenberg. His website is at


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