In the Senate, Covering Themselves in Old Glory

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.

The number has increased to four, from three.

The naive among us may have trouble appreciating how four flag-burning episodes would constitute a constitutional crisis. But the men and women of the Senate, ever alert to emerging threats, are on the case.

"I think of the flag as a symbol of what veterans fought for," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said as he opened the debate yesterday, "what they sustained wounds for, what they sustained loss of limbs for and what they sustained loss of life for."

In pursuit of this urgent matter, floor leader Specter mustered all manner of argument: the military service of his brother, Morton; his brother-in-law's service in the Pacific; his father Harry's service in the Argonne; his mother's emigration from Ukraine; his own stateside service during the Korean War; a pickup-truck accident his father once had with his sister; bicycle rides he took as a 7-year-old in Kansas; the "treachery of Mussolini"; the light casualties sustained during the Persian Gulf War, and a trip he made to VA hospitals 15 years ago.

"I think it's important to focus on the basic fact that the text of the First Amendment, the text of the Constitution, the text of the Bill of Rights is not involved," Specter argued. The Judiciary Committee chairman did not explain how he could add 17 words to the Constitution without altering its text.

Fortunately, the Senate will have plenty of time to discuss that matter. The chamber has scheduled up to four days of debate on the flag-burning amendment this week. If that formula -- one day of Senate debate for each incident of flag burning this year -- were to be applied to other matters, the Senate would need to schedule 12 days of debate to contemplate the number of years before Medicare goes broke, 335 days of debate for each service member killed in Iraq this year and 11 million days of debate on the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the country.

Unfortunately, the Senate has only 49 days left on its legislative calendar for the year.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) saw the calculus somewhat differently.

"They say that flag burning is a rare occurrence; it is not that rare," he told the chamber. An aide hoisted a large blue poster detailing 17 incidents of flag desecration over three years. Hatch, citing "an ongoing offense against common decency," read them all. "That's just mentioning some that we know of; there's a lot more than that, I'm sure," he said.

Never mind that, in most cases, the perpetrators could be prosecuted for theft or vandalism. For Hatch, this was sufficient evidence of the need for an amendment. "Now, I have to tell you," he vouched, "the American people are aggrieved."

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) countered with a different set of figures. "There have been only seven acts of flag desecration annually in America in the last six years, so to argue that we have this growing trend toward desecration and burning our flag defies the facts," he said. "In fact, it rarely, if ever, happens. And so why are we about to change the handiwork and fine contribution to America of Thomas Jefferson?"

Next on the floor, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) presented yet another set of statistics. "Exceedingly rare," he concluded. "Two hundred cases in 215 years. Less than 10 cases over the last 10 years."

But Durbin and Dodd were in the minority in their inability to recognize the threat to the flag. Nearly two-thirds of the senators -- tantalizingly close to the number needed to pass the amendment -- are expected to vote for the flag-burning amendment this week, including Sen. Harry Reid (Nev.), the Democratic leader.

And the pro-amendment crowd is armed with powerful constitutional arguments. "Ever since the Boy Scouts first taught me how to care for our flag over 40 years ago, it has always held a special place in my heart," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a press release yesterday.

That's not to say the senators were feeling energetic as they took up the amendment. The day's session started at 2 p.m., but by 2:21, there was no senator on the floor to speak, and the chamber went into a quorum call -- its equivalent of a nap -- for the next hour.

At 4 p.m., Specter tried to wake the chamber. After a brief tour of the legal issues, the Pennsylvania moderate tossed aside his prepared remarks, noting that while they were "excellent staff work," he didn't want to read them. Instead, he tried for the personal appeal: treating the almost empty chamber to some family history.

"My father, Harry Specter, was hit by shrapnel in the legs," Specter disclosed. "But had the shrapnel hit him a little higher, Harry Specter might have been in one of those [European] cemeteries and he wouldn't have been my father, and I wouldn't have been."

And the urgent work of amending the Constitution would have fallen to somebody else.

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