2 women are on deciding paths for our democracy

Jamie Stiehm, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — Two women are deciding paths of our destiny, the acting Capitol police chief and the Senate parliamentarian. You and I — and the lamppost — don’t know them.

One unknown gave us something deeply wrong; the other took away something deeply right. Strange for strangers to have such untold, unelected power in a democracy, while we pick up pieces from shambles.

Happy Women’s History Month, everybody.

We’ve never seen anything like the massive fence imprisoning the Capitol after the Jan. 6 riot — a terrible message for the temple of democracy. Razor wire and soldier sharpshooters all around the dome for a country mile. The landscape looks like martial law. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told me, “I wish they’d tear the thing down.” It’s former President Donald Trump’s parting gift, his writing on our National Mall. He sent legions of white supremacists marching to “fight like hell.”

But the military overkill is due to the acting Capitol police chief, Yogananda Pittman. Her boss, Steven Sund, got fired on Jan. 7. She’s a scaremonger but has not taken responsibility for her police force losing control of the Capitol to the armed mob.

I was there that day, in the siege. The mob was better organized. There were heartbreaking police casualties and heroics. But the chief leaders were unprepared, despite an FBI warning.

Meanwhile, something happened inside the dome contrary to the currents of most lawmakers and citizens.

The Senate parliamentarian threw out raising the minimum wage to $15 in the pending American Rescue Plan. Just like that. One woman, one vote.

This raise for working Americans, meant to lift families out of poverty, was part of the COVID-19 stimulus package passed by the House. Now its heart languishes on a deathbed in the Senate.

Meet Elizabeth MacDonough, the obscure parliamentarian. Who knew she was the keeper of the keys? The mob ransacked her book-lined Capitol office, where she dwells, quiet as a mouse.

Does the parliamentarian care to live on $7.25 hourly, the federal minimum wage? Let her try.

The nearly $2 trillion package was written for the country’s crisis in quiet desperation. The pandemic and economic fronts are related. They rise or fall together. History calls for bold, sweeping action, following in the shoes of the New Deal during the Depression.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., voiced disbelief. “I regard it as absurd that the parliamentarian, a Senate staffer elected by no one, can prevent a wage increase for 32 million workers.”

There’s no time for technicalities. Sanders has a point, and he’s not alone.

The man from Vermont vows to start a campaign to “ignore” or overrule the parliamentarian. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is impatient with the Senate’s glacial speed even now, a year into the pandemic.

The “Byrd rule” is how MacDonough justified her decision that raising the minimum wage was “extraneous.” The late Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, might not mind. I knew him well, a brilliant statesman from a poor state. Raised by a coal miner, Byrd knew in his marrow that government could make all the difference in rocky times.

Years ago, Byrd joined Sen. Edward Kennedy in championing a higher minimum wage.

President Joe Biden loves the Senate labyrinth. He’ll let MacDonough’s decision remain undisturbed.

Back to Pittman, a deputy chief thrust in the glare of a deadly debacle. She sounded a vague alarm of a plot to blow up the Capitol when Biden addresses Congress — not supported by the FBI.

Much of the Capitol gardens and terrace has been taken away from the public since I was a rookie reporter for The Hill and roamed freely. When it snows, children used to sled on the hill the Capitol crowns.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius who designed Central Park, created the inviting west front staircase that connects to the Mall. Since Sept. 11, the complex is scarred by bollards and checkpoints — none of which would keep a plane from crashing into the marble citadel.

The Capitol lantern lights the world — once upon a time, not long ago. Pittman now wants a more permanent fence with razor wire, with a smaller footprint.

Neither Pittman nor the parliamentarian seem to see the larger vision of what the Capitol stands for.

We need women of the people.

Editor’s note: Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.


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