Every close student of the American political system has had occasion to decry the system of seniority in the United States Congress that elevates mediocrities, or worse, to the chairs of the Committee fiefdoms that control the process of legislation. Anyone watching the egregious Max Baucus, lordly representative of three tenths of one percent of the U. S. population, will almost reflexively think of term limits and direct democracy. And yet --- and yet --- every so often, this archaic and deeply undemocratic system elevates just the right person at just the right moment to a position of benevolent dictatorship, yielding guilty delights that one must savor to the fullest while they last.
These thoughts were prompted by several hours in front of the television set watching the markup of the financial services regulation bill, presided over brilliantly, irrascibly, and imperially by the incomparable Barney Frank, long time member from Cape Cod. Frank has always been my favorite member of the House, a stocky, rumpled gay late middle-aged man with an unruly shock of white hair and a perpetually raspy voice who is manifestly about three times as smart as any of his colleagues. The Republicans on the Financial Services Committee were engaged in a seemingly endless delaying action, desperately trying to forestall what was patently inevitable, namely the imposition of some new and badly needed regulations to rein in the people who brought us the current depression. In a parliamentary body accustomed to effulgent expressions of collegial courtesy, Frank is an oasis of straight talk. After one proposed amendment had been shot down, Frank remarked, about the next one fielded by a Republican, "I thought the last amendment was the worst conceivable, but this one tops that." At one point, Frank asked routinely for unanimous consent to do something or other that one of the Republicans desired. The custom, as anyone knows who watches C-Span One or Two or Three, is for the Chair to say, "I ask for unanimous consent to ..." and then, without a moment's pause, to add "without objection." But at this point, Michelle Bachman, who sits on Barney's Committee [how is that for poetic justice?] said, "yes." "No, no," Barney explained, as to a three year old. "The way you show agreement is by being quiet. You only say something if you object." He did not add, "you idiot," but the words hung in the air.
As I say, you must cherish these moments. One final recollection, for those of you who do not know Frank so well. Frank was the first openly gay member of Congress. After he came out, he remarked, "There are plenty of gay members of Congress, and I've danced with all of them." The seniority system has its pleasures.