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Sometimes you get an insight by reading what is going on someplace else in the world. I’ll admit that’s not a ground-shaking revelation, but the insight can be a point of sudden snap-focus into what is happening right here under your nose.
In my case, this “ah-hah!” moment came from reading a New York Times Op-Ed article by Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv journalist and senior political editor for The Jewish Journal. His piece, titled, “The Tyranny of the Minority” (2 August 2013) discusses changes that are taking place in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, regarding adjustments to the election laws that determine the threshold percentage needed to win a seat in body. The specifics are not important to my point (you can read the article if you are interested), but the impact of the changes on how the minority parties will have to negotiate to have a voice caught my attention.
I contend we have in the United States House of Representatives not just the birth, but the rapid evolutionary growth of a parliamentary structure; a structure that, according to my reading of the United States Constitution, should never exist.
For some context, here’s what’s happening in the Knesset. As the percentage threshold for winning a seat in the assembly is raised, the smaller parties that might have had just one or two seats under the old rule are now unable to win even a single seat. Since these small parties represent minorities to begin with, such as different Arab groups, and more extreme Jewish conservative and liberal parties, they are faced with a huge dilemma. How does a single party negotiate with one (or more) of the others to piece together a coalition that might mean compromising with a group they find politically distasteful? And even worse, from their perspective, what if their only solution was to compromise and attach themselves to one of the mainline “Jewish” parties?
Raising the threshold was proposed on the theory that it could help stabilize Israel’s political scene by strengthening the two leading parties. It may not: Some say it would only create more midsize parties. But at least it would fix the currents system’s main pitfall, which is to discourage compromise among all parties by encouraging the proliferation of small ones.
Huh? An image began to form in my mind sketching out what is happening in the House of Representatives. Similar to the Knesset, we are observing the growing influence of smaller and smaller groups of narrowly-aligned representatives declaring that they are fighting perceived tyranny in the size and function of the Federal Government, but ironically, growing closer to manifesting and exercising a true “tyranny of the minority” over the House.
Rosner’s closing point was my snap-focus realization:
For a country as varied and complicated as Israel, the representation of minorities is crucial. But for a country as varied and complicated as Israel, learning to compromise is even more important.
Bang! Substitute the words “United States” for “Israel” and what emerges is a powerful statement of what I see is the affliction that is now crippling the House of Representatives, and placing the balance of power of the Legislative Branch outlined in the Constitution in jeopardy.
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The question at hand is of tremendous importance: Is the current factionalism dominating the House of Representatives grown to the point where an ideologically-rigid few are willing to shut down the Government in a matter of weeks if they don’t get their political way, constitutional?
Take, for example, the current effort by those Republicans who align themselves with the so-called “Tea Party,” a coalition of groups around the country not organized as a legitimate political party, but demanding the same degree of influence. Led by House members such as Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), this tiny knot of Representatives are threatening to bring the Government to its knees if the Affordable Care Act (derisively referred to as “Obamacare”) is not completely defunded. Well, except for the parts that the public really likes. As such, Mr. Gohmert and his cohort are attempting to impose upon the country the angry objections of a minority over a law that was passed and signed into law in 2010. (Yes, I know the polls regarding the ACA, but this example focuses on the Tea Party faction’s objections.). Their greatest fear is that when the Health Care Exchanges open in October 2013, millions of Americans will willingly flock to sign up for the health insurance they have never been able to access, and the window of opportunity for continuing the faction’s anti-government temper-tantrum will slam shut on their fingers.
What Mr. Gohmert and other representatives like him are creating is a de-facto parliamentary structure in the House of Representatives. What’s the basis of this charge? In most countries with parliamentary representation, the voters cast their ballots for the political party (or a combination of candidates and parties) they want to have the majority power in the assembly. The reality is, however, as Rosner points out, “the current system’s main pitfall…is to discourage compromise among all parties by encouraging the proliferation of small ones.”
That’s what I see happening in the House of Representatives. Ironically, it is being aided by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), his lieutenant Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), along with others in the House Republican leadership through the application of the so-called “Hastert Rule.” This “rule”— not codified in any way—functions in two ways. First, it stipulates that no bill can be brought to the House floor unless there are enough votes for it to be passed by the majority party. The second is that it prevents the minority party from getting any of its legislation to the floor of the House for an up or down vote on its merits. It is therefore referred to as the “majority of the majority” and it has been exercised by both Republican and Democratic Speakers of the House. But as you can read by clicking on the link for the Hastert Rule, the Speakers of both parties have also chosen to ignore the rule on numerous occasions.
Former Speaker Hastert (R-Illinois) who lost the Speakership in 2007 to Nancy Pelosi (D-California), stated in 2013, however, “If you start to rely on the minority to get the majority of your votes, then all of a sudden you’re not running the shop anymore.” Mr. Hastert might have been referring to going to the minority party to get votes to pass legislation, but in today’s context, observing the dysfunction of the House in 2013, he might also mean going to the minority factions in the majority party to cobble enough votes together to get a bill passed. But the latter smacks of building coalitions and compromising on critical issues, notions that are an increasing anathema among many in the current GOP political caucus.
Regardless of what Mr. Hastert meant, for all practical purposes, the latter is what is happening and from my perspective that is the mess that Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor have created by adhering to the Hastert Rule. They find that they’re not really running the shop anymore.
My contention is that Republican voters and extremist Conservatives who identify with the Tea Party are acting as if they are living in a parliamentary-based voting system; that is, they are voting for the party not the individual. With that mind-set, the elected representatives from those gerrymandered districts go to Congress with a predisposed parliamentary entitlement paradigm. They demand from their leadership that they be given equal, or greater-than-equal rights, to influence in the party caucus, because they know that with the application of the Hastert Rule, no piece of legislation can be brought to the floor without their input and approval.
The Tea Party coalition has power in the Republican Party process as well, particularly in the electoral primaries. Look at this section of analysis by the latest Pew Research Poll:
Tea Party Republicans have influence in the GOP partly because of their high level of political engagement. Overall, they make up a minority (37%) of all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents nationally. Yet this group is more likely than other GOP voters to say they always vote in primary elections; as a result they make up about half of the Republican primary electorate (49%). Pew Research, 31 July 2013.
Without question, those results indicate a significant power base in the GOP. The question, remains, is this trend healthy for America’s political future?
I have grave doubts on the matter. Unlike the United States Senate, which, as the “upper house” of the Legislative Branch operates by a completely different set of procedural rules, the House of Representatives was designed to be an assembly in which the voters in each district voted for an individual, a person they deemed to have distinctive qualities of leadership for the common good, while maintaining close ties to the people back home. When the Constitution was being drafted in 1787, this was a dangerously radical idea.
How radical? Alexander Hamilton, writing in The Federalist: A Collection of Essays Written in Favour of the New Constitution published in 1788 states,
The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first, to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good for society; and, in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous while they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government.
Hamilton goes on to outline the characteristics of the ideal Congressional Representative. It is his fifth “circumstance,” though, that points directly to my question and my fear:
I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have it full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples, but without which every government degenerates into tyranny.
If it be asked, What is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of society? I answer, the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.
If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people shall be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty. (Hamilton, Alexander (1788) “Supposed Danger in the Plan of the Convention, No. LVI”. The Federalist (1901). New York: Colonial Press, p. 314-316.
Based on statements like this, I believe that Alexander Hamilton (1st Secretary of the Treasury), James Madison (4th President of the United States, an instrumental framer of the Constitution and Father of the Bill of Rights), and John Jay (1st Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), would be aghast at the current state of affairs in the House of Representatives. Their mandate to the nation was that House members are to be “men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good for society” has broken down into political degeneration (to use Hamilton’s word). I think they would assert that we are in a state of affairs that is dangerously close to falling over a cliff, plunging the nation itself into a parliamentary distortion of the republican ideal. Paraphrasing Hamilton, in the current situation, the genius of the system is being debased.
As the “Tea Party” and other splinter groups call for revolution against tyranny, their words ring hollow. Their only hope for power requires that the Constitutional mandate for the Federalist-based House be torn apart and replaced by a parliamentary oligarchy instituting ideologically-based parties, whose sole goal is to impose their political power upon the House itself, and therefore on the American public, in reckless disregard for the public-will that opposes them.
The genius of the system must not be allowed to be debased. America is great because it is a democratic republic and not a parliamentary system. One might make the argument that our system is much harder to govern because it relies on the individual voter casting her or his ballot for an individual candidate, but that is the very genius the authors of the Federalist Papers envisioned. As they clearly state, it is the intimate relationship between the people and their elected representatives that makes each elected individual wholly responsible both to those who placed him or her in office and their solemn oath to protect the Constitution thereby being equally responsible to those who make up the peoples of the Union. To shirk one or the other, in my mind, is to violate that oath.
The “Tea Party” laments that the Constitution is in danger. I would concur. The Constitution is always in danger; as a Living Document, it has faced the imperative of protecting freedom against tyranny since the day it was finally ratified. We of the majority electorate must heed that threat at all times. The “Tea Party” and other radical conservatives, however, are blind to the fact that they, themselves, are a clear and present danger to the Constitution’s integrity. The House of Representatives will collapse into chaos if the current tyranny of the minority is allowed to mature and dominate that Chamber of our bicameral Legislative Branch.
On that day, God forbid that it ever comes to pass, the Great American Experiment in democracy and freedom from political tyranny will have failed. If it does, those of us in the political majority will have no one to blame but ourselves. This outcome, however, is not inevitable.
It is our civic responsibility to protect the Constitution (perhaps our sacred responsibility) through the exercise of the Rights of the Majority. If we are to continue to be a legitimate democratic republic, then we must use every means provided to us in the Constitution to prevent the debasement of the House of Representatives into a distorted parliament, a corruption of the American Ideal that generations of citizens have defended at the ballot box and raised their voices in the public square to protect. To fail to do so would dishonor those who bled and died over more than two centuries so that our freedoms from tyranny would be secure.
I leave you with this. It is the responsibility of “We the People” who are the majority to protect and preserve the Constitution along with the Branches of Government that protect and preserve our freedoms. It, too, is the responsibility of “We the People” to protect the minority political voices in our nation for the Constitution protects their freedoms as it does ours. In the end though, it is the ultimate responsibility of “We the People” to protect all Americans either from a tyranny of the majority or, as I have raised my voice in this post, against this tyranny of the minority debasing our House of Representatives–for we are not prepared to tolerate anything but Liberty!
A tip of the hat to BB!