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The making of laws is a sacred trust

I’ve been watching the ongoing soap opera in D.C. over relaxed attire for U.S. senators on the floor of the Senate. To make Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) feel more at home, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) waived hundreds of years of Senate rules, allowing senators (aka Fetterman) to work on the Senate floor in whatever they feel like wearing.

Fetterman now has carte blanche to schlep into the storied room where hallowed history has been made looking like a college frat boy on the morning after a three-day bender.

I will be honest; it bugs the stew out of me.

I stayed quiet at first because Fetterman had actual physical and psychological issues. But then he began mocking anyone who dared comment on his street bum attire. In his weird and awkward style, he made gestures, strange noises, and cast insults. He blamed Republicans for supposedly freaking out – never mind that Democrat Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (lll.) also expressed concern saying, “We need to have standards,” nor that Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) is circulating a petition to reinstate wardrobe rules.

Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back. The freshman senator from Pennsylvania took the dais in the Senate to preside over the proceedings swaddled in a giant hoodie-sack and a pair of gym shorts from 1992. It looked like a homeless man had wandered in off the street and taken hold of the gavel.

But I still didn’t find words to fully describe why it bugged me that a guy dressed like a bum was sitting in the presiding officer’s chair of the U.S. Senate.

Then the memories came back. And I knew.

I recalled my election to the Alabama Senate. I knew it was special. I took it seriously.

Then came the day I made my first trip to the Alabama Statehouse, rode the elevator to the seventh floor, went out on the floor of the State Senate and found a desk with my nameplate already on it. It hit me that I was in a place where decisions were made, affecting millions of lives. It was humbling and a bit overwhelming.

I was also struck by the formality of the proceedings. Certain things had to be said at certain times and under certain conditions in order to promote the good order of the body and ensure that the records of the Senate were kept intact. And yes, there was a dress code. I was proud to be a part of it.

I remember walking back from lunch one day in Montgomery with my friend and colleague Sen. Greg Reed (R-Jasper) who now serves as the Senate Pro Tem. As Greg and I were walking, I looked over and saw the State Capitol with its white dome shining in the sun and was struck with a sense of being part of something bigger than me. “I hope I never get used to this,” I told Greg. “The day I get used to this it’s time to go.”

In late 2014, the tired and battered Alabama State Senate chamber was updated when Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) took it upon himself to orchestrate its renovation. Desks made of plywood and covered in chipped Formica had been in place for decades. The carpet was stained, and mold was growing in the corners.

So prison carpenters made new desks. The mold was cleared. The walls were painted. A classic blue carpet was put down. I asked Marsh if he was satisfied and he said, “Phil, now it looks like a place where the laws are made.”

These memories remind me that “the people’s business” is a sacred trust. Enacting laws should never be done with a laissez-faire attitude. Every vote cast in the Statehouse or the U.S. Capitol is a vote that affects millions.

The floor of the U.S. Senate is where cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices, and our nation’s highest-ranking military officers are confirmed. The floor of the U.S. Senate is where decisions are made to raise taxes, declare war, address disasters, and sometimes pass budgets. It is a special place where never more than 100 men and women serve at any one time.

Members of the U.S. Senate, for all their warts and blemishes, are still the people that we look to for decisions designed to “establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.

Even when they make decisions we don’t like, they should be constrained to do so in a manner that is professional, orderly, and formal because the making of laws is one of the world’s most special things. There are nations full of people who have no idea what it means to have an elected person standing in the well of a Senate chamber swearing an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

We deserve to know that those who make our laws — good or bad — don’t do so as an afterthought or a lark. The people deserve to know that a U.S. senator will not stumble in unshaven and half-dressed like a college kid who suddenly remembered he had a term paper to write after staying up all night playing “Call of Duty.”

I don’t think Fetterman knows any better. He’s a lump of goo, and his family should be ashamed for putting him in this position. But Schumer? He knows exactly what he’s doing. The making of laws is a sacred trust and should not be treated like a morning at the gym.

We the People deserve the respect of treating lawmaking like the special calling it is.

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