What is Lebanon today? Put in a blender a self-serving ruling elite, along with a helpless people down on their luck and a prostrate nation withering on the vine, mix well, and you’ll have made yourself a modern-day Lebanon — a polity in free fall inexorably descending into political, economic and institutional collapse, ruled by freewheeling factions, topped by the likes of Hezbollah, whose loyalties are more in thrall to a foreign power than tied to their own country’s national interest.
This unconscionable fate that has befallen Lebanon is of great concern to the entire Arab world, given the fact that what happens in one country does not stay in that country, much in the manner that, as the saying has it, what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.
Rather, the travails of one Arab country almost always have ripple effects, becoming part of the pan-Arab public debate and at times creating diplomatic strains and geopolitical shifts in the entire region.
Last Friday, Saudi Arabia gave the Lebanese ambassador 48 hours to leave the country.
The foreign ministry in Riyadh cited the reason as being comments by Lebanon’s Information Minister George Kordahi. The remark touches on cumulative acts of malfeasance by the various sectarian factions that make up the ruling class in Lebanon, acts that go all the way from calculatedly blocking reform to openly engaging in drug trafficking.
[Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi said Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen were
“defending themselves… against an external aggression,”
These factions in today’s Lebanon are running amuck, imbued with the feeling that they are untouchable, outside the reach of the laws of the land.
Consider this. You and I, along with everybody and his uncle, know what happened in Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, when around 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate, mindlessly stored at the city’s port since 2014, within a block or two of densely populated neighbourhoods, exploded into an inferno that killed 225 people, injured 225, left hundreds of thousands homeless and around 86,000 homes destroyed.
Apocalypse allowed to happen
Well, you would imagine that a probe into how that apocalypse was allowed to happen — a probe owed the Lebanese people by their government — would’ve long been concluded by now. It is not. And it is not because these same factions have blocked it lest their complicity in the tragedy be exposed. As simple as that, my dear Watson.
On Saturday, in a lengthy article about how corruption has ruined Lebanon, the New York Times Beirut correspondent, Rania Abouzeid, wrote of what the prominent Lebanese investigative journalist Riad Kobassi saw while he looked into why no probe into the disaster was ever concluded and why no one person was ever indicted.
“Over the years”, wrote Abouzeid, “Kobassi and his colleagues have revealed how, for the right price, shipping containers [at the port] entered or exited the country without proper inspection. Containers were stolen and passed through security checkpoints. Of the 25 customs officials at the port responsible for inspecting containers, 16 were caught in footage taking bribes that Kobassi broadcast. All kept their jobs, even after eight were prosecuted and some were imprisoned. ‘Till now, till now, they are still serving in their positions at the Beirut harbour. Till now! You’re asking me how there was an explosion at the port? This is how’.”
A basket case
It was, incidentally, in these very containers, marked as agricultural products, that Lebanese drug kingpins, operating in cahoots with these factions — political blocks, like Hezbollah, smuggled tens of millions of emphetamine pills into Saudi Arabia that the authorities discovered last year. (In April, Riyadh in a predictable retaliatory move, the kingdom banned any further Lebanese agricultural products from entering the kingdom.)
Ironically, it was Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf states, that was key in efforts to fund the rebuilding of Lebanon, in particular its national capital, in the wake of the crushing 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, and that went on to become the country’s largest export market. Billions of dollars were invested in the nation’s economy and its infrastructure. Yet today, more than three decades after the fact, Lebanon is a basket case, with its currency virtually worthless and its people pitiably destitute.
So is there a heavy-duty crisis, or a crisis of any kind, between Lebanon and the Gulf states?
Asked about that by CNBC last Saturday while he was in Rome, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal Bin Farhan, said: “I don’t think I would call it a crisis. I think we simply have come to the conclusion that dealing with Lebanon and its current government is not productive … with Hezbollah’s continuing dominance of the political scene, and with what we perceive as a continuing reluctance by the government and Lebanon’s political leaders to enact the necessary reforms … in order to push the country in the direction of real change. We have decided that engagement at this point is not productive or useful, and it’s not really in our interests”.
We can also look at it this way: when an ambassador to your country has nothing credible left to say about the incredible political system in the nation he represents, it is time for that ambassador to be told that he should lift anchor and sail away.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile
In the fight over if and when a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill would take place and whether it would be tied to a vote on President Joe Biden’s broader economic agenda, one fact was overlooked: House Democrats passed their own infrastructure bill in July. The reason you haven’t heard much about that measure is that the House acquiesced to the Senate’s demand that it vote on the Senate’s bill without amendment. In doing this, the House accepted a bill that not only omitted many progressive priorities but also had no input from its members.
If the irrelevance of the House in this negotiation were an unusual case, it may not be cause for concern. But this is the way most major laws have been made for the past decade: They are products of the Senate with little or no House involvement. This is because the House—whether controlled by Democrats or Republicans—now acts as if it were a unicameral legislature in a parliamentary system, rather than acknowledging that it is only one of two legislative chambers in a presidential system. It routinely passes partisan legislation that cannot pass in the Senate, because it is too far out of the American ideological center. The result is a House of Representatives that now serves only to either block or—in the case of “must pass” legislation—rubber-stamp Senate bills on major issues. Members of the House have largely given up their power, and thus their constituents’ power, to create legislation that addresses our nation’s biggest problems.
This state of affairs is not what the Founders intended. Two of the main reasons the Framers of the Constitution created two chambers of Congress were to provide Americans with multiple access points to the lawmaking process, and to force representatives and senators to deliberate and compromise. They believed that this would not only produce the best laws but also promote the legitimacy of these laws, because the manifold voices in our nation would have the potential to be heard through their representatives as well as their senators.
As I wrote in a chapter of Under the Iron Dome, a recently published anthology, members of the House now mainly represent their party and its platform rather than their constituents’ diverse views. Through changes in the rules, members have relinquished much of their individual power and disempowered committees in order to give their party leaders the ability to shape legislation for the purpose of pursuing the party’s goals. In formulating legislation, party leaders cater to interest groups, activists, and donors aligned with the party to build electoral support. These supporters tend to be further toward the ideological extremes. Little to no effort is expended to pick up votes from the other party in the legislative process. This may be a reasonable way to legislate in a single-chamber parliamentary system, but the House is only one half of one branch in the American lawmaking process.
The problem with the House legislating in this manner is compounded by the prevalence of divided government, where control of the White House, the House, and the Senate is split between the parties. Divided government has occurred more than 30 out of the past 41 years, or 40 out of 41 when considering the need for 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. During these periods, only bipartisan bills can become law, and partisan House legislating only contributes to gridlock. Sometimes, however, a consensus emerges that legislation must be passed to address a particular issue. When this has occurred in the past decade, the necessary bipartisan compromise bill has been written in the Senate and passed without changes by the House. This happened in October 2013 and January 2018, when Republicans controlled the House and a compromise was needed to end a government shutdown. But it also happens when the House is in Democratic hands. In 2019, when there was a humanitarian crisis at the southern border, a bipartisan bill produced in the Republican Senate became law, because the bill passed by House Democrats could not pass in the Senate.
When one of the two chambers of Congress is not contributing to lawmaking on the most important issues facing our country, our democracy is not healthy. It is especially troublesome when the weak link is the House, because that chamber was intended to play a preeminent role in ensuring the people’s democratic control of the republic. The House has always been considered the bulwark of American democracy.
Could we solve this problem by eliminating the Senate filibuster? Perhaps. But divided government is now prevalent. And even when Republicans had unified control in 2017 and 2018, and used the budget-reconciliation process to skirt the filibuster in their attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact big tax cuts, the Senate still largely determined the outcome on both bills. The Build Back Better reconciliation bill will again test whether the House can generate leverage vis-à-vis the Senate even without the filibuster.
Another option to make the House more effective at legislating, and to open up the possibility of more voices being heard in the lawmaking process, would be to change the chamber’s rules to re-empower individual members and committees, thus providing more opportunities for bipartisan legislating to occur in the House. The bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, of which I was a member, attempted to do this in 2018, when it endorsed a package of rule changes. Leveraging our votes in the January 2019 speaker-of-the-House election enabled us to win a few changes. A new speaker will be elected in the next Congress (assuming that Nancy Pelosi keeps her pledge to step down or Republicans become the majority), presenting another opportunity to secure rule reforms. But if nothing changes, “the people’s House” will continue to produce more theatrics than solutions, failing the people and our democracy.