By Arturo López-Levy
Originally published in The Havana Note
Article 1 of the United States Constitution recognizes Congress as the first branch of US democracy, with the executive and judiciary following behind. Bicameralism was a central concept of the 1787 constitutional pact. It was seen as a republican “remedy” against potential abuses of legislative despotism. If the House was conceived to express the direct mood of the people, James Madison envisioned the Senate as a high chamber of “enlightened individuals” that would operate with “more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch”.
But a conspicuous gap has emerged between the founders’ design and the reality of some of today’s Senators. Poll after poll shows that the public holds Congress in low esteem. In the view of many Americans, some Senators not only reflect a polarized public but also contribute to making the system dysfunctional by abusing procedures, such as the unanimous consent rule, in pursuit of personal or parochial gains or to settle personal vendettas, rather than to defend national interests.
The Cuban community’s representation in US politics has been remarkable over the last decade. No place is this more evident than in the Senate. Although the 1.8 million Cubans living in the US only represent 4 % of the Hispanics and less than 0.6 % of the US general population, they have managed to elect three Senators since 2004. The first was Mel Martinez, a moderate republican from Tampa who served as HUD secretary during the first term of George W. Bush. Second was Robert Menendez, a congressman from New Jersey who was appointed by the state governor and successfully ran for reelection in 2006. After Martinez’s retirement in 2010, Florida elected Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the state House.
One might disagree with Senator Martinez’s positions, but his posture was appropriate for the high office he held. On the verge of a constitutional crisis in 2005 over President Bush’s controversial judicial nominations, and the threat by Majority leader Bill Frist to use the so called “nuclear option” against the democratic minority, Senator Martinez joined the bipartisan “gang of fourteen” and helped to diffuse the conflict, thereby acting with the “coolness” and long-term perspective the framers foresaw. During his service on the strategic Judiciary Committee, Martinez placed country above party and developed a congenial relationship with other members (including Senator Biden) that eased partisan tension and gained him the respect of his colleagues.
Unfortunately, the other two Cuban American Senators have not emulated Mr. Martinez’s respect for the institution. During the current 112thCongress, Senators Menendez and Rubio have abused their powers to filibuster, with unusual frequency and unwholesome motives, in order to hold up nominations to the judiciary and several positions in the Foreign Service. Such behavior makes one wonder whether the two Cuban American Senators understand the gravitas the framers embedded in the Advice and Consent function of the institution in which they serve. It also raises concerns over how the Cuban American right-wing political culture, characterized by incivility, dishonesty and vengefulness, pollutes the halls of Congress and contributes to a further decline in voter confidence.
Since Mr. Rubio arrived in the Senate, he has tried to micromanage the Treasure Department policy regarding licenses for travelling to Cuba. Wasting hours of the Senate’s precious time, Mr. Rubio has read, again and again, promotional materials about educational travel to Cuba by various US institutions interested in participating in President Obama’s people-to-people diplomacy, second-guessing the decisions of US officials who are acting in full consistency with the laws of the land and the regulations of their agencies.
Since the White House began implementing its own Cuba policy, supported by the majority of the Cuban-American community and the US public, Mr. Rubio has embarked upon a McCarthy-style crusade against the State Department that is damaging our nation’s policy towards the entire Latin American region. In the last three months, Mr. Rubio has held-up the nomination of three ambassadors (Jonathan Farrar to Nicaragua, Adam Namm to Ecuador, and Mari Carmen Aponte to El Salvador) as well as the nomination of Roberta Jacobson for assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. As a result of Mr. Rubio’s pitiful bickering, US diplomatic presence in the region has been seriously handicapped, creating political opportunities for our adversaries.
In the case of Farrar, the former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who simply carried out the policy of the State Department, Senator Rubio’s McCarthyism sent a chilling message: Ignore the Constitution and do not implement the policy of the Diplomat in Chief; Cuban-American right-wing politicians, not the State Department, will decide your promotion. The same must be said about Mari Carmen Aponte. Mr. Rubio blocked her confirmation as the first Puerto Rican US Ambassador, despite the support of the entire US community in El Salvador where she had been serving under a recess appointment. The reason, he argued, was that more than twenty years ago, she had been sentimentally involved with someone who had links to the Cuban Interests Section in Washington and who was also an FBI source.
It is reasonable to expect that Senator Menendez, as a senior Cuban-American legislator, would guide his junior colleague toward a more mature stance. But the opposite is true. Rubio is Menendez’s “A +” pupil. In 2009, Menendez was responsible for holding up the nominations of Dr. John Holden and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, both world renowned scientists, because of an issue totally unrelated to their careers: Menendez was simply retaliating against President Obama’s policy that allows unrestricted Cuban American travel to Cuba.
Just a week ago, Menendez was shamefully blocking President Obama’s nominee to a seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senator never presented one substantive complaint against Judge Patty Shwartz, who is rated by the American Bar Association as “unanimously well qualified”. The people of New Jersey know that Mr. Menendez was pursuing a self-indulgent political vendetta. Judge Shwartz’ companion of two decades, James Nobile, was the officer in charge of a public corruption unit that investigated Mr. Menendez and issued a subpoena against him in 2006. Only after massive pressure from his own party and powerful editorials against his action by the Washington Post and the New York Times, Menendez drop his block against Judge Shwartz’s nomination.
These behaviors, unworthy of the US Senate, should give pause to voters. The press must seriously scrutinize the moral capacity of these two Senators to honorably fulfill their constitutional duties of Advice and Consent especially in regards to the President’s policies towards Cuba. Senator Rubio’s lies about his parents’ immigration to Miami- reported by the Washington Post- and his hiding behind an artificially created clash with Univision as a pretext for not engaging in a televised debate about immigration are not isolated misdemeanors. The actions of Senators Menendez and Rubio are typical reflections of the authoritarian political culture that caused Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba. By bringing this culture of deceitfulness, revenge and corruption into the US Senate, these elected officials are demeaning the very kind of freedom they claim to want for Cuba. They have forgotten that respect for democracy must begin at home.
Dawn Gable contributed to this article.