Well, it would seem that the United States Senate has been placed into receivership by 14 self-appointed trustees, several of whom are amongst the Senate's most wanton exhibitionists. Some of these ladies and gentlemen can be seen almost daily preening in front of television cameras confessing their moral superiority over their colleagues by virtue of their lack of firm convictions and their unwillingness to be team players.
Ironically, they have just formed the most exclusive club in the Senate, which was, until Monday evening, itself the world's most exclusive club. They are the charter and, presumably exclusive, members of a club within a club.
This will be an interesting experiment in the application of Lord Acton's ever-applicable maxim that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Senate trustees might want to recall another of Lord Acton's many pithy truths: "The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern ... Every class is unfit to govern."
Let no one assume that this little assemblage of selfless senators will limit the reach of their writ to the matter of judicial appointments. As if one couldn't guess, on Monday night, Sen. Lindsey Graham -- the Tom Sawyer of the Senate -- looking all twinkly-eyed and mischievous into the television camera, promised that the wonderful 14 would soon be announcing their plan to reform Social Security. Tomorrow, the world!
So begins the Regency Period of the United States Senate. As long as these 14 stick together, nothing can pass the Senate. Certainly they now possess, jointly and severally, veto power over the president's judicial appointments. Hereafter it would be imprudent of the president of the United States to send up any nominations without first requesting permission from Democratic Sens. Robert C. Byrd, Daniel K. Inouye, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman and Ken Salazar. The president need not check with the seven Republican senators because their only job is to keep the Republican leadership powerless. It is exclusively the Democratic senators who are empowered to give their imperial thumbs up or down signals.
What shall we call these 14 senators? Trustees, regents, governing board members, blessed ones, lord protectors, proconsuls, oligarchs, cabalists, conspirators, usurpers? For the moment, it doesn't matter. History will give them their final designation. Certainly they see themselves as saviors of the Senate traditions. (God save us from self-appointed saviors. It always ends in tears.)
Whatever they are, they are not defenders of tradition. For starters, they have converted the allegedly traditional authority of a minority of 41 to block passage or confirmation into an empowered minority of three. Any three Democratic regents may block a judicial nomination. By organizing into a blocking mechanism -- and presumably swearing blood oaths of loyalty to one another in a secret ceremony out of sight of the uninitiated -- they have created a new "tradition."
Already they are taking on the trappings of a governing entity. On Monday night, they didn't issue a press release -- as senators and congressmen usually do. Instead, they issued a "Memorandum of Understanding on Judicial Nominations" on plain Senate stationery, subscribed by the 14 self-chosen ones. I assume in due time they will have their own stationery printed up. Gold-embossed, I shouldn't wonder.
They will become the object of special pleading from other senators and from outside interest groups. Having seized power they will be treated as power holders always are -- with fear, supplication, envy, resentment and, finally, revolt. Surely other groups of senators will quietly form to attempt to influence the regents on and with collateral matters.
Once they go to work on Social Security reform, as Sen. Graham promised Monday night in an audience he gave to Mr. Chris Matthews on MSNBC, they will have expanded their power to include legislation. Their 14 en bloc votes would be decisive. Given their policy proclivities, we can assume tax increases but not private accounts will be included in their bill, which will be enrolled on the mountaintop before they come down to deliver it to their colleagues in the Senate.
The art of being them requires that they act in secret together and present a common front. If they permit individual negotiation after they have reached their accord, they will lose all their power.
But for the time being, they have the power -- which was until Monday afternoon in the possession of President Bush and Sen. Frist.