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Learning From Kiev

Politics Without Pretense

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

It was a particularly refreshing sight and, one can hope, may be treated as a didactic moment for the United States Congress.  If adopted many of the problems it faces would disappear and Congress could return to doing what it was elected to do.

Kiev in the Ukraine has not always set an example that the United States would want to follow. It was, until 1991, a part of the Soviet Union and during that time, there was little about how its legislature worked that caused anyone to think the United States Congress should follow in its footsteps.  That was then-this is now.  Following its separation from Russia there have been two occasions on which that country has given us an example our Congress should follow.   The first pertains to its conduct of elections.

On July 24, 2009, Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, amended the law on elections.  It shortened the time during which campaigning could take place from 150 days to 90 days.  If the 150 day rule obtained in the United States current campaigns would only have begun the end of May.  If the 90 day rule were in place, the campaigns would not begin until the end of July. That would be a welcome change to the United States system and is the first example set by Verkhovna Rada.  The second, and more compelling example that the U.S. Congress should adopt was offered on May 25, 2012.

May 25 was the day that the Verkhovna Rada was debating the highly charged issue over Ukraine’s official language policy.  The specific issue was whether the Russian language should have the formal status of a second language in approximately one-half of the regions in the Ukraine, including Kiev.  The east and south of the Ukraine are Russian-speaking and want closer ties to Moscow whereas the west is Ukrainian speaking and favors closer ties to the west. It is not surprising that the debate about this highly sensitive issue was emotional.  And because it was so emotional it is useful to compare how the Verkhovna Rada dealt with it and how the United States Congress would deal with it.

If a similar issue were presented in the United States, it would go before the Senate and those supporting it would make speeches expressing their great admiration for those opposing it and attributing to them nothing but the highest motives and would infuse their speeches with such high praise for their opponents as to leave no doubt that everyone in the U.S. Senate was everyone else in the Senate’s very very best friend. Those very very best friends would, of course, end up on opposite sides of the issue and unless 60 out of 100 very very best friends in the Senate were in favor of the legislation, it would go nowhere.   In the House of Representatives there are 435 representatives who are also very very best friends and speak glowingly of their colleagues even when those very very best friends are preventing their very very best friends from getting any legislation passed.  The result of the foregoing is that for the last 3-½ years, the United States Congress has spent almost all its productive time while on vacation because at least its members are having fun.  The Ukrainian parliament suggests a wonderful alternative to the sham politeness that infuses the United States Congress.

On May 25 its members could not agree on how to resolve their differences on adoption of Russian as a second language. The proponents and opponents of the legislation did not make lengthy speeches expressing their admiration and fondness for one another.  Instead, Vadim Kolesnichenko, the author of the legislation said opponents said to him  “You’re a corpse, you have two days left to live, we will crucify you on a birch tree.” Those less than compromising words were accompanied by fisticuffs in the hallowed halls of the legislative chamber, that sent at least one member of the parliament to the hospital. Another is seen being hoisted in the air and passed from hand to hand until finally deposited unceremoniously on the ground. (A BBC video of the event can be viewed online.)

The difference between what went on in Verkhovna Rada and what goes on in Congress is there is a total absence of pretense in the former. Elimination of pretense is not the only benefit that would accrue to the U.S. Congress were it to follow Verkhovna Rada’s example.

The possibility of brawling being used to resolve differences among legislators would eliminate from Congress members who treat their elections as entitlement to serve life terms.  If fisticuffs were the norm in resolving legislative standoffs, members in their 70s and 80s would conclude that legislative work was something more suited to the young.  Cspan viewership would increase dramatically attracting those who though not drawn to politics, would enjoy watching melees in the legislative chambers.  Some may think such conduct would demean the institution.  That assumes its reputation can sink to lower levels than it now enjoys.  It can’t.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com