Beltway Beat: How ugly is it?

Posted: Mar 15, 2002 12:00 AM
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday to lay out his department's fiscal 2003 budget estimates - some of the money earmarked for sprucing up, if not entirely rebuilding, U.S. embassies around the world. Since the topic of embassy beautification came up, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., figured there was no better time to get something off of his chest. "You compare that with the horrible, ugly, disgraceful eyesore of our embassy in London, for example, something that makes about as much sense as putting a garbage truck in the middle of a Rolls-Royce parking lot. Very good people work there, of course, but it's just a pretty ugly building." LAWS OF THE LAND What inspires U.S. senators and congressmen, guides them as they preach to the masses on issues near and dear to their hearts? Look no further than their breast pockets. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., is never without a copy of the Constitution, tucked away in his vest pocket for those occasions when he lectures his Senate audiences on American history and law. He's often seen retrieving the Constitution for added effect. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole similarly carried in his pocket a copy of the 10th Amendment, serving to remind the Kansas Republican that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the People." Still, not all lawmakers have the law of the land so close at hand. Which is why the Cato Institute in recent days began distributing to members of Congress pocket-size copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. And they're not stopping at Capitol Hill. Copies of the little brown book are also being handed to state legislators, political leaders from other countries and more than 2 million Americans. "Every American knows that the Constitution is the fundamental law of the United States, but too few of us know what it actually contains," explains Cato's Joan Aylor Kirby. "The Constitution is the document in which the American people delegated some of their powers to the federal government, enumerated those powers - mostly in Article 1, Section 8 - and thereby limited the powers of the new federal government. "The law of the Constitution is illuminated by the philosophy set forth in the Declaration of Independence, so the two documents are properly read together." It's worth noting that the nonpartisan Cato Institute is named for Cato's Letters, libertarian pamphlets that helped lay the philosophical foundation for the American Revolution. And no, that was not the Constitution or Declaration that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used to pull from his pocket during his relentless debate with the Democrats. That was the GOP's "Contract With America," a copy of which is hard to come by these days. ALL EQUAL The last thing former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield remarked to this columnist was that he would keep up his impressive pace "as long as the Lord will let me." Which turned out to be well into his 98th year, the former Montana lawmaker's death on Oct. 5 tragically overshadowed by the fallout of Sept. 11. Before retiring from Congress and beginning the longest U.S. ambassadorship to Japan, Mansfield for 16 years guided the Senate through some of this nation's most difficult times: the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and Watergate. He had run away from a Montana orphan's home and joined the Navy at 15, serving in World War I. He entered Congress at the start of World War II. Writer Marc C. Johnson, in the March/April issue of Montana Magazine, writes not so much about Mansfield's unparalleled career, but about his character. Never better displayed than in 1970, when Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska was a rookie senator. "Last in seniority and more than a little unsure of himself, he was nevertheless determined to offer his own amendment to a pending ocean fishery bill being debated on the Senate floor," Johnson writes. "Stevens had talked to the floor manager of the bill, Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, to make certain he would have the chance to get his amendment considered even though Stevens would be involved in committee work while the bill was being debated on the floor. Muskie said he would send for Stevens in time to facilitate floor discussion of his amendment. "The call never came." Now, more than 30 years later, Stevens vividly recalls his feelings. "When I realized that the roll call was under way, I rushed from the committee room back on the Senate floor, and not being one to mince words I said to Muskie, 'You son of a bitch, I have an amendment to this bill, and you know how much it means to me to be able to offer it.'" Mansfield overheard the raised voices and obscenity. "Mike said to me, 'Senator, we just don't use that kind of language on the floor of the Senate,'" says Stevens. "I apologized but told Mansfield I was so upset because I had an amendment to the bill being voted on, and Sen. Muskie had told me I could present it - then hadn't given me the chance." What happened next, says Stevens, never happened again in the U.S. Senate. After confronting Muskie, a fellow Democrat, Mansfield asked for a copy of Stevens' amendment, interrupted the roll call and asked for unanimous consent to reverse course on the Senate calendar to the proper place where amendments could be offered. "Stevens remembers dead silence in the chamber," Johnson writes. "Then unanimous consent was granted and the majority leader recognized, 'On behalf of the senator from Alaska, I offer an amendment. Does any senator care to debate the amendment with the senator from Alaska?' "No senator did," reveals Johnson. "In fact, no one, including Muskie, said a word. On the strength of Mike Mansfield's sense of fairness, the Stevens amendment passed without debate. It remains the law today." After the vote, says Stevens, Mansfield came up to him and said, "We are all equal on this floor, and a senator must keep his word." BYPASSING BAGHDAD When it comes to Iraq, one U.S. senator stands out above the rest. "I have met him," says Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska. "As a matter of fact, I think I am the only senator who is still in the Senate who met with Saddam Hussein prior to the Persian Gulf war." And a most bizarre meeting it was. Murkowski and four other senators, including Bob Dole, were to meet with the Iraqi leader in Baghdad. But upon arrival they were suddenly informed by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz that the meeting place was changed to Mosul, where an unfinished runway would not accommodate the senators' U.S. Air Force craft. So Saddam sent his own airplane to fly the senators to Mosul. "Somewhat reluctantly" and after much discussion, recalls Murkowski, "we did climb into the aircraft and fly up to Mosul." Wouldn't you know that upon landing, Aziz announced that the runway was completed and the Air Force jet could join them. "We knew we were set up to make a story," says Murkowski. The meeting with Saddam didn't go much better. "At one point, he got rather belligerent and suggested we had no business in his country talking to him about the attitudes of the people of Iraq," the senator says. So, should Saddam be the next target in the war against terrorism? "We know he has chemical weapons because we have watched him use them on his own people," Murkowski says. "We know Saddam wants nuclear weapons because his chief bomb maker defected to the West with a wealth of information on their program. We know very well he has a missile capability because he fired dozens of missiles on Israel during the Gulf war." Any further questions?