by Steve Chapman
Lott spent his last seven months as Senate majority leader trying not to become Senate minority leader. That challenge was a result of the 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats, with Vice President Dick Cheney breaking the tie. But Thursday, the balance tipped against the GOP. In his new post, Lott ought to start by doing something that is long overdue: persuading Strom Thurmond to quit.
The 98-year-old South Carolina Republican has gone from being the punch line in jokes to being the whole joke. The oldest person ever to serve in the Senate, he is hard of hearing, in poor health, frequently in the hospital, incapable of handling normal senatorial duties, and sometimes only dimly aware of what is going on around him. He can't chair committee meetings, participate in debates, give speeches, or even call the Senate to order, a task he recently had to give up.
When Thurmond votes, it's not clear he understands what he's doing. A wax dummy out of Madame Tussaud's gallery would do about as well. Doubtless there are 98-year-olds out there who still enjoy all their important faculties, but he's not one of them. That Thurmond nonetheless remains in one of the most powerful and prestigious offices in America is a national embarrassment.
The voters of South Carolina are partly victims of, and partly accomplices to, an ongoing act of fraud: the pretense that Thurmond is still their senator. Their real senator is his chief of staff, who was elected by no one. When Thurmond last ran in 1996, pollsters found that most South Carolinians thought he should retire. But then they went ahead and re-elected him.
His gross incapacity is hardly news to his colleagues, who are used to treating him like a potted plant. Even Thurmond's friends admit he's no longer fit for the job. "He has resigned himself to the fact that his staff runs his office," conservative commentator and former Thurmond aide Armstrong Williams recently told The Washington Post.
But this year, his conspicuous deficits had to be overlooked by fellow Republicans for one simple reason: The chamber was perfectly divided. Keeping Thurmond alive and in office was the difference between keeping control of the Senate and losing it. So Lott and Company saw no choice but to play along with the ruse.
Now, though, they no longer need to do that. When Vermont Sen. James Jeffords quit the GOP to become an independent, he turned control of the Senate over to the Democrats. He also removed the last excuse for Republicans to indulge Thurmond's insistence on staying in office until he's a century old. The Republican leadership now has a duty to the Senate and the American people to go to Thurmond and inform him that he has served his country long enough.
Thurmond's defenders will retort: If the people of South Carolina want him in office, what right does anyone else have to object? In the first place, those voters may not want him anymore -- the last time they had their say, he was a mere 93, and less infirm than he is now. If the election were held today, he might very well lose.
In any case, though, the U.S. Constitution doesn't assume that the voters are always right. That's why the people of South Carolina are not allowed to elect a senator who is 29 years old, or a citizen of Luxembourg, or a resident of North Carolina. The Senate also has the authority to expel members by a two-thirds vote. If a senator ran naked down Pennsylvania Ave. and publicly pledged allegiance to Fidel Castro, no one would say the wishes of the voters should be respected.
That's because a treasonous or lunatic senator would interfere with the important responsibilities of the national legislature. The work of the Senate is the work of all 100 members, which is why vacancies are always promptly filled. But having a member who is doing nothing more than drawing a paycheck and emitting carbon dioxide is the moral equivalent of having a vacancy.
Republicans, of course, would still prefer to prop Thurmond up until the next election, in November 2002. If he quits, you see, his successor would be appointed by South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges -- a Democrat who presumably would pick someone from his own party.
As long as they're down by only one seat in the Senate, Republicans can hope that some Democrat will switch parties, leave to join the circus, or get run over by a bus, throwing control back to them. If Thurmond were to resign and be replaced by a Democrat, though, that hope would be gone.
But too bad. Senators always say they put the needs of the country above the interests of their party. This is their chance to prove it.
May 28, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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