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A progressive senator explains why his colleagues are “too fussy” about decorum

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz: Playing basketball with Ted Cruz won't make the Senate work better.

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Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), left.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill will privately admit to being pulled in two different directions when trying to navigate their response to President Trump’s administration.

They’ll concede that they’re torn between a desire to do everything to block Trump’s agenda on the one hand, and on the other a desire to maintain the collegial institutions and bipartisan collaboration baked into the Senate’s founding DNA.

Not Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). One of the most progressive members of the Senate, Schatz says opposing Republicans when necessary should take precedence over worrying about any impact on Senate “decorum” and rules.

“What a luxury to be in this gilded place, this literally gilded place, and worry about decorum,” he says in an interview. He adds, “We get too fussy about the perceived natural order of things and institutional prerogatives. All of that stuff has to go over time.”

While walking to his office in the Hart Senate Office Building, Schatz discussed the decline of cross-aisle Senate friendships, the fight over the censure of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and whether Democrats should filibuster Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. The exchange has been edited for clarity.

Jeff Stein

You said you wanted to “disabuse” me of the notion that friendship and collegiality between senators is an important good worth upholding, or that Democrats should be worried about the norms of the body falling apart.

Brian Schatz

I’ve had dinner with Pat Toomey and played basketball with Ted Cruz, but that doesn’t mean we agree. I think there is an old saw in Washington — and it’s mostly among the chattering class that used to love their cocktail parties — that the problem is a lack of personal relationships.

But a lot of us have very good personal relationships, and the fact of the matter is that the country is polarized. There are opportunities to build personal relationships, and that’s an important aspect of doing business in any context. But there’s a fixation on the idea that if your kids play soccer together, you’ll be able to solve big problems in a legislative context. And that’s wrong.

I think it’s a fixation among the chattering class because that’s how they remembered it when things worked better. And it is true that things used to work better. But their diagnosis for why it used to work better is just incorrect.

Jeff Stein

[Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio gave a speech [last week] about this question on the floor, saying we’re too polarized and the Senate is devolving into a body where people just demean and attack each other. Is there a degree here to which the left is also becoming intolerant?

Brian Schatz

I think we should be intolerant of intolerance. We should be ferocious in defending the rule of law; I think we should fight for working men and women and vulnerable populations — I don’t know where that puts me on the political spectrum, but in some instances people think that’s “intemperate.”

This argument over whether Elizabeth [Warren] hurt Jeff Sessions’s “feelings,” right? What a luxury to be in this gilded place, this literally gilded place, and worry about decorum. I’m not saying we should all be nasty to each other — I’m not that way — but I think we should actually have more tough debates.

Jeff Stein

It’s almost like the myth of this place being sustained by friendship is being laid bare by how awful [Democrats perceive] Trump is. Trump violates so many norms, it’s easier to say, “No, this is someone we need to fight.”

Brian Schatz

Right, but people are conflating the violation of social norms with the violation of rules and laws. There’s a sense during the campaign that he was going to come in and blow everything up, and that he doesn’t want to play by the Washington rules in terms of what order you’re supposed to do something, or not holding the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

We get too fussy about the perceived natural order of things and institutional prerogatives. All of that stuff has to go over time. But what should be unbreakable is our commitment to constitutional government.

Jeff Stein

Do you think Trump has made Senate Democrats more aware of that dynamic? That they’re more willing to break with norms and precedent because this guy seems, from their perspective, so awful?

Brian Schatz

Yeah, I think it’s clarifying. If you look at what’s happening with a lot of these confirmation votes, a lot of people came in open-minded and trying to get to “yes” on some of these nominees.

But they can’t, because [the nominees are] preposterously unprepared for the jobs. So I think there are some members who are inclined either because of their belief in the prerogatives of the executive branch of government or because their politics lend themselves to collaborate, and then they interact with the nominees and realize that they just can’t do it. You just can’t get to yes.

There were members who thought, “I’ll try to give him his Cabinet.” And then you talk to these people and think, “I just can’t do this.”

Jeff Stein

Do you think that dynamic will play out again over [Trump Supreme Court nominee] Neil Gorsuch? You hear a lot of Democrats who said that they shouldn’t treat him the way Republicans treated Merrick Garland, and it looks like there’s a similar impulse that may run the other way.

Brian Schatz

I don’t think it’s a strategic question. I think each member will have to come to his or her own conclusion. But there are some issues that are beyond the ability for our caucus to set strategy from on high, because each member will have to make a decision that they think will stand the test of time.

So we’re getting a lot of questions: “What is the Democrats’ strategy with respect to Gorsuch?” And I think the only time I’ve seen it get to this level where caucus leadership is not even in a position to whip on it is this and matters of war and peace — where when you’re in the Senate, you think: “These are the choices you’ll be measured by.” So every senator, in that instance, is an island.

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