Beware of an aroused citizenry. It's an admonition that should be ingrained in the brain of any run-of-the-mill politician, let alone someone who has ascended to the United States Senate.
But from the Olympian heights of the world's greatest deliberative body, it is often forgotten. So senators got a reminder in the humiliating defeat of a "comprehensive" immigration bill that had the support of the president of the United States, a bipartisan group of senators with the blessing of the leaders of their caucuses, and the support of the editorial boards of the country's most important newspapers.
All of that was enough to get all of 46 votes on a key procedural vote that needed 60 to pass. The fight over the immigration bill was the first instance of an insider parliamentary struggle in which bloggers, talk-radio hosts and citizens were able to have a major voice through the synergistic power of the Internet, radio waves and telephone lines. Bloggers picked apart the bill, talk-radio-show hosts broadcast its flaws, and ordinary people jammed their senators' phone lines -- blocking what had begun as a kind of legislative coup.
The creators of the Senate's so-called Grand Bargain -- giving illegal aliens legal status in exchange for new enforcement measures -- originally hoped to slam it through the Senate in a matter of days. Even as they held a self-congratulatory press conference about the bargain, no one had seen the text of the 300-page bill. Their implicit axiom was, "Trust us."
It quickly became clear that was impossible. The bill's boosters repeatedly were caught mischaracterizing it. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff seemed to suggest that illegals would have to pay back taxes, when the White House had quietly taken that provision out. Bloggers and talk-show hosts publicized this and other problems that otherwise would have gone unnoticed (John McCain learned of the tax provision in a blogger conference call), slowing its momentum.
As the techno-populists dissected the bill, its senatorial supporters mustered their most off-putting imperial pique. Mississippi Republican Trent Lott rued that talk radio was "running the country." Ohio Republican George Voinovich went on the Sean Hannity radio show and complained that he was being "intimidated" because people were calling his office opposing the bill.
President Bush said opponents hadn't read the bill, when diligent bloggers combed through it line by line. They gave the bill the markup -- the detailed process of amendment -- that it never got in committee because there was such a rush to passage. Even the procedural shenanigans that the bill's supporters relied on to try to get it through were subject to the intense glare of publicity. Instead of helping the bill's cause -- as such arcane maneuvers would have in the past -- they hurt it by adding to the sense of chaos and unfairness around the process.
Once, the Senate leadership would have been able to lean on members opposed to the bill to do a dishonest two-step to pass it. First, vote for cloture to end debate over the bill, which requires 60 votes and was the toughest hurdle. Then, vote against it on final passage, which takes only 50 votes -- so there would be more wiggle room for "no" votes. This way, the Senate leadership would have gotten its bill, and senators opposed to it could tell constituents back home that they had voted against it. But bloggers and talk-radio hosts blocked that dodge by sending up a cry, "A vote for cloture is a vote for amnesty."
In the end, support for the bill literally collapsed. Even the imperious Voinovich voted against cloture. Now, there is really no such thing as an "inside game" anymore, since bloggers make sure it gets "outside." Both the right and the left will take advantage of this, for good and ill policy ends. But it's clearly an enhancement of democracy. Senators should get used to it, and buy more phone lines.