Is that a lame duck costume?

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How Kabuki Theater Explains Keystone Vote

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I wrote last week about some of the reasons that lame-duck congressional sessions are an anti-constitutional idea. The Senate vote on approving the Keystone XL pipeline, scheduled for Tuesday, provides more evidence that such sessions should be reserved for extraordinary events. Instead, both parties see a chance to influence the outcome of the Dec. 6 runoff election in Louisiana, where Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu is fighting for her political life.

The Keystone pipeline is popular in Louisiana, and Landrieu has campaigned as a supporter. The strong possibility that she will nevertheless lose the runoff to Republican Bill Cassidy suggests that Bayou State voters blame her party affiliation more than they blame Landrieu herself: After all, it’s the Democratic Senate that has refused to bring to a vote any of the numerous Keystone bills passed by the House.

So outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid is offering Landrieu this one shot. But given the likelihood of a Democratic filibuster, and the near-certainty of a presidential veto, the effort to put on a sideshow for the voters of a single state has been derided by critics as Kabuki theater.

They’re righter than perhaps they know. Consider: Kabuki is designed around actors -- not the setting or the direction or even really the story, but the actors. Earle Ernst, in his influential study of Kabuki, notes that “the most spectacular stage effects are those which are created to show the actor to best advantage.” The few props that are used “appear only when needed and are removed immediately when they are not required.”

Isn’t this the perfect description of the Senate’s Keystone vote? The purpose of the performance is entirely to show Landrieu to best advantage, and the vote itself is a prop that will most certainly vanish immediately.

Kabuki costumes, moreover, are designed to be removed with ease, right up on stage. Underneath, the actor is always wearing another costume, different in color and pattern. The effect can be dazzling, as the performer transforms suddenly into someone new: the reliable party functionary can, when necessary, become the rebel, and the rebel can then revert to form as reliable party functionary.

In the classical Kabuki theater (as opposed to the Western-style theaters more recently built), many of the spectators had a poor view of the action on the main stage but a good view of hanamichi platform across the way, where some small part of the performance might take place. This is essentially the voter’s view of congressional proceedings anyway: We mostly watch the performers who come out into the audience along the hanamichi (also known as talk shows). What goes on up on stage is often a mystery.

With a lame-duck session, the problem is intensified -- if, indeed, we are paying attention at all. When a bitter election cycle ends, I suspect that the instinct of most Americans is to try not to think about politics for a while. Certainly we don’t want it on the central stage. And so the performers conduct a hanamichi sideshow instead.

To a very small audience.

In this particular case, the only reason Reid is allowing the Keystone vote is in the hope that the good people of Louisiana are watching the show. The rest is posturing. More evidence that if you’re looking for a waste of resources, a lame-duck congressional session is generally a good place to start.

  1. I am expressing no opinion here on whether the pipeline is or isn’t good policy. I’m also leaving aside the question of whether Congress has the authority to approve the pipeline if the president rejects it.

  2. And, please, let’s not get started on all the “essential” legislation that has to be passed in the lame-duck session. Were the Congress of the United States doing its job -- you know, acting like a legislature with a co-equal responsibility for running the government -- every bit of it would have been passed already.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net