Invisible Man by Elizabeth Catlett
Invisible Man by Elizabeth Catlett, Harlem, New York. Photo by Tony Fisher (CC-BY 2.0, via Flickr)

The Political Uses of the Past Project is sorting through the avalanche of statements that the new Congress has brought. This post includes two dozen recent backward-glancing statements from senators, covering the border, the shutdown, Israel, defense spending, voting rights, and more.

Topping the list below are three disparate references to historical racism and civil rights. Senator Leahy takes issue with an attempt to use federal law to undercut the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement targeting Israel’s policies on Palestinians. Senator Merkley ties our state laws banning felons from voting to Reconstruction-era attempts to limit the franchise. And anti-abortion senator James Lankford attempts to enlist Ralph Ellison’s concept of invisibility. Very different causes, but similar intent; these historical references serve to anoint a given cause with a scent of morality in the face of grave injustice.
The following sequence calls on the history of the Cold War and the new “great power competition.” There’s a lot to unpack here, but the Trump administration has already confused the issue with its terminology. Great power is a slippery phrase; the competition following the Congress of Vienna was very different than the one following World War II. But with his trade wars, skepticism about NATO, and America first ethos, Trump appears ready to settle for spheres of influence rather than broad alliances. In addition, the domestic scene makes this new competition unlikely to look much like the Cold War. As Senator Michael Bennet points out, the United States had a very different approach to spending during the Cold War and faced a very different economic outlook.

More below on the border, gridlock, and an appeal to Trump that he take one of Lincoln’s public-opinion baths.

Sen. Patrick Leahy: The civil rights movement shows the importance of boycotts, and why the government should not interfere with them

Patrick Leahy[This bill] also includes the boycott, divestment, sanctions legislation. This is an open violation of our First Amendment. … I might not like a particular boycott, but the right to boycott is fundamental. Just pick up any one of our books about the U.S. civil rights movement and wonder if Martin Luther King and others would have been successful if they had not been allowed to have boycotts. It is not up to the government to pick and choose which boycotts citizens should support or oppose.

–Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, Senate Floor, January 14, 2019

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Sen. Jeff Merkley: Denying felons the right to vote is a legacy of Reconstruction-era attacks on African Americans

Jeff MerkleyThis process of taking away the ability of felons to vote has a deep, deep history of racism in our country. It was used after the Civil War to disenfranchise Black Americans so that White Americans could control areas that were predominantly African American. So this use of the felon disenfranchisement–failure to restore the right to vote after you have served your sentence–is something that has to be put away, and Florida set a great example in doing so.

–Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Democracy, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. James Lankford: America is ignoring fetuses in the same way white America treated black Americans as “invisible”

James Lankford Ralph Ellison was saying in the early 20th century that White America, when they ran into Black America, refused to look and ignored them as if they were invisible and just walked on. … I wonder, one day, when the peculiar eyes that choose to pretend that this child is invisible, simply because she looks like this, when our peculiar eyes choose to look at what we have chosen to say is invisible and to turn away and to say: Let’s see what we do as a culture. Let’s march for life.

–Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Right to Life, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Joni Ernst: We have now returned to a world of “great power competition”

Joni ErnstUnder the new national defense strategy, the United States has rightfully recognized the return to great power competition, where our priorities have shifted from low-intensity conflict to posturing against peer and near-peer adversaries.

Just as we rose to the challenge in the two World Wars, the Cold War, and following the attacks on September 11, 2001, we must, once again, evaluate our current posture and chart a course that best protects our national security and our interests.

–Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), National Defense, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. James Inhofe: The United States military's technological advantage against its largest adversaries is “a thing of the past now”

James InhofeAt the end of the Cold War, we had about the same number of fighter aircraft as our adversaries at that time–that was Russia and China. … Actually, at that time, we were way ahead of them. This is a thing of the past now. While we had the same amount, we were still superior because our aircraft were the newest and the most capable in the world. … Now that has changed.

–Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), National Defense, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. James Inhofe: The drop in defense spending between 2010 and 2015 was unprecedented: “Even after the Korean war, it didn't drop that much”

James InhofeConstant dollar defense spending dropped $200 billion from 2010 to 2015. That was in the last 5 years of the Obama administration. … That is unprecedented. Even after the Korean war, it didn’t drop that much.

–Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), National Defense, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Michael Bennet: For the first time, with exception of the years of the Vietnam War, unemployment is falling but the deficit is rising

Michael Bennet And it is not just this shutdown; it is a decade–a decade of fiscal fights made in the name of fiscal responsibility that have put us in the position for the first time since the Vietnam war and before the Vietnam war to see our unemployment rate falling and the deficit going up.

–Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 14, 2019

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Sen. Michael Bennet: Because of Congress's “fecklessness” we can't rise to challenges like Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon

Michael BennetWhile we have been shut down, China landed a spacecraft on the dark side of the Moon. That has never happened before in human history. There was a time in our history–you will remember it–when the Russians launched Sputnik. That caught our imagination. John F. Kennedy said: We are going to put a man on the Moon within the decade. That is what he said. That is what we did. Now, because of the fecklessness of this Congress, did you know that America cannot send an astronaut into space without asking the Russians for permission to ride on one of their rockets?

–Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 14, 2019

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Sen. Dan Sullivan: “Over the past 25 years, every single President of the United States ... has attempted to secure the southern border”

Dan SullivanIt should not be controversial. In fact, over the past 25 years, every single President of the United States–Democrat and Republican–has attempted to secure the southern border and has come before the Congress and said: I am going to secure the southern border.

–Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Roy Blunt: We relied on border barriers in the 1990s, and they were effective

Roy BluntIn fact, a generation ago, we began improving and expanding barriers in a few areas along the southern border, and in every instance, they have made a difference. In 1992, the U.S. Government built a wall in the San Diego sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the number of people caught crossing that border decreased by 95 percent when the barrier was erected.

We have President Clinton and Presidents Bush–Bush 43 and Bush 41–all were part of thinking barriers worked, and the Congress was too.–Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Border Security, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. Roy Blunt: “No country in the history of the world has been any more open than we have been to allowing people to come here legally”

Roy BluntWe are for protecting people who are uniquely at risk in the country that they come from. Asylum is an important thing. No country in the history of the world has been any more open than we have been to allowing people to come here legally, to have people who legally seek asylum come here.

–Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Border Security, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. Sherrod Brown: “Illegal border crossings are at historic lows”

Sherrod BrownFacts matter. So when you hear the President say we need a wall, remember that it is a fact that illegal border crossings are at historic lows. It is not fake news. … It is a fact that border crossings are at historic lows.

–Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. Patrick Leahy: While illegal border crossings are at historic lows, the number of agents on the border is at a “record high”

Patrick LeahyIn fact, with Democratic support, the number of agents and officers we have is at a record high, even though illegal border crossings are at the lowest level we have seen since 1971.

–Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Border Security, Senate Floor, January 14, 2019

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Sen. Sherrod Brown: Trump should get what Lincoln called a “public opinion bath” by talking to federal workers

Sherrod BrownYou know, I wish President Trump would talk to the workers he is hurting with this shutdown. I wish that he would go out and, as President Lincoln used to say, get his “public opinion bath” and listen to these workers; that he would leave the White House or Mar-a-Lago, where he spends most of his time, and talk to these workers I talked to yesterday–the TSA workers in Cleveland who are working without pay.

–Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. Marco Rubio: History teaches that Israel's adversaries will go to war if they believe they have an advantage

Marco RubioFrom its very birth, Israel has faced threats to its very existence, but I would say today that the threats it faces are the greatest ones it has had to confront in almost a half century.

If anyone in that region believes it could beat Israel in a war, one will try to beat Israel in a war. That was the history from its very birth, and that was the lesson of 1967 and the lesson of 1973. We don’t want that to happen again.–Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. Mitch McConnell: The Senate is shut down because of Democrats' refusals; “there is no precedent for that”

Mitch McConnellThere is a second shutdown going on that, as far as my research can discover, is rather unprecedented. The Senate itself is being shut down because of the refusal of our colleagues on the other side to do business in the Senate during this period. There is no precedent for that.

–Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Unanimous Consent Request, Senate Floor, January 10, 2019

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Sen. James Lankford: Viability--the underpinning of Roe v. Wade--“is very different” than it was in 1973

James LankfordOn January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled on what is now the infamous Roe v. … It was supposed to have settled the issue that every single State has to allow abortion and that life, according to the Supreme Court in 1973, was about viability. When can this child live on his own outside the womb–viability? Viability in 1973 was very different than viability now, thankfully.

–Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), Right to Life, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Jeff Merkley: Electoral college system was “based on a historical factor of communication”

Jeff MerkleyThe whole electoral college was set up in a world in which communication was very difficult. It might take weeks to get the votes to the Capitol, but that is not the world we live in any longer. So isn’t it time to go to a direct vote?

The electoral college is antiquated–an antiquated idea based on a historical factor of communication that no longer exists.–Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Democracy, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: A recent vote on carbon pricing was “a whole case study in corruption ... as the Founding Fathers would define it”

Sheldon WhitehouseSpeaker Ryan brought the fossil fuel-funded resolution [against carbon pricing] to a vote, and with the Republican caucus largely a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry, the resolution passed. There is a whole case study in corruption here, as the Founding Fathers would define it, but the simple lesson for today’s purposes: Money talks and big fossil fuel money commands.

–Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Climate Change, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Robert Menendez: “Never before in our history have we had a President under investigation by the FBI for being a foreign agent”

Robert MenendezPresidents certainly have a right to confidential conversations with world leaders. Never before in our history have we had a President under investigation by the FBI for being a foreign agent–an agent of the Russian Federation.

–Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Disapproving the President’s Proposal to Take an Action Relating to the Application of Certain Sanctions with Respect to the Russian Federation, , January 15, 2019

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Sen. Bob Casey on the opioid crisis: “We have never seen a public health problem like it in probably 100 years or at least not anything worse than it”

Bob CaseyIt is everywhere, and it is devastating. We have never seen a public health problem like it in probably 100 years or at least not anything worse than it. … Sometimes the same people say, “I really am worried about the opioid crisis….” Yet sometimes those same Members of Congress … vote for budget after budget after budget and bill after bill to cut Medicaid.

–Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), Medicaid, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Mitch McConnell: In 1991 “leading Democrats were practically heading up the Bill Barr fan club”

Mitch McConnellDemocrats controlled the Senate in 1991–Democrats controlled the Senate in 1991. That is when he was confirmed–confirmed on a voice vote. … So 28 years ago, leading Democrats were practically heading up the Bill Barr fan club, and his subsequent service proved they had made the right call.

–Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Nomination of William Barr, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein: The 1994 assault weapons ban garnered bipartisan support

Dianne FeinsteinI rise today to reintroduce legislation that prohibits the sale, transfer, manufacture, and importation of assault weapons. … I know that the gun lobby has a stranglehold on this building. … But I also know this [the assault weapons ban] was hard-fought in 1994, and we prevailed–with Republican support. It was a bipartisan vote.

–Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), A bill to regulate assault weapons, Senate Floor, January 9, 2019

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Sen. John Thune: “Over the past 30-plus years, some of our greatest legislative achievements have been the product of divided government”

John ThuneI noted that divided government doesn’t have to spell the doom of productivity. In fact, over the past 30-plus years, some of our greatest legislative achievements have been the product of divided government. But I also noted that in order for us to be productive in the 116th Congress, Democrats would have to decide to work with us. So far, they have decided not to.

–Sen. John Thune (R-SD), Government Funding, Senate Floor, January 15, 2019

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