Before we can fix government, we need to fix Congress. The problem with Congress is minority rule, but privacy of the ballot box could restore political moderation.
U.S. government is a mess. It doesn’t work well, and it seems to be getting worse all the time. There are many people who can identify any number of problems, and we will return to some of those in a future post. But I contend that there is a simple solution for some of the problems.
And there aren’t many problems that are amenable to simple solutions.
In fact, one of our problems is that we believe that simple solutions exist. So we should be wary when anyone claims there is a simple fix for a large problem, which I am claiming here. In this case, however, I am arguing for a remedy that was always in our traditions, one which the current state of affairs was designed to circumvent. My only defense is that you read, and judge for yourself.
The central concept to any system of equality is majority rule. This is true of all systems short of dictatorship/absolute monarchy. For instance, in an oligarchy, while the bulk of the population may not be equal to the oligarchs, there must be some equality among the oligarchs themselves, as each of them has a vote, or at least a say.
Even after 240 years of democracy, unfortunately, there are still many among us who seek to foster inequality, who want to elevate themselves and subjugate the rest of us. We can see their work every time the rich influence tax laws so that they pay a lower rate than those who make much less money. We can see it when money buys its way into the good graces of our elected officials, so that our representatives no longer represent us, but vote to please big donors. We can see it when political actors seek to suppress the participation of those who will vote against them. We can see this inside the political parties, where the hacks suppress popular will to advance their preferred candidate. We can see it in when presidential candidates game the electoral college, focusing on swaying delegates instead of convincing voters. We can see it when elections and proposals are scheduled at times when the supportive voters are most likely to vote, or the opposing voters are less likely to do so. We can also see it where citizens are denied the right to vote, their votes are voided after the fact, or voter polls are placed in locations that make it hard for them to vote.
One of the most important ways to manipulate elections is gerrymandering, where elected officials sabotage majority rule by gaming the voting districts to insure that they, and their party, hold power.
There are few states where the injustice of this legacy is more obvious than in Louisiana. In our little state of disenchantment, among 2,974,058 registered voters there are 1,307,201 Democrats (44%), 896,129 Republicans (30%), and 33,890 ‘Other’ (26%).1)Source, Louisiana Secretary of State. And yet, among Louisiana’s 6 Congressmen there is but one Democrat, and his success is dependent on a federally-mandated minority district. The State Legislature is likewise skewed, as Republicans control the Senate 25-14, and the House 60-43. It’s not just that they control the system; they have insured that the larger party has almost no voice at all, particularly in Washington. There are similar examples in other states, and of course, Democrats play the same games in states where they control the political apparatus.
Gaming the Rules
The foregoing are typically dressed up as bureaucratic efficiencies, or defended as allowable within existing rules and traditions. When inequalities subsequently appear because of these efforts – even inequalities which threaten our entire system of government – the powerful and their supporters simply argue that they are acting within the law.
There is an old saw in legal practice, “When the law is on your side, argue the law. But when the law is not on your side, argue the facts.” There is a third consideration: What happens when our fundamental rights are at risk, but they are neither enshrined by law, nor supported by the facts? This is not a moot point: before the Civil War and the 14th & 15th Amendments, there was neither law nor fact which provided equality to Africans. Of course the 9th Amendment, one of my favorites, allows for the protection of rights that are consistent with our other laws and our legal traditions, and which are not otherwise enumerated. But the applications and interpretations of the 9th are complicated.
To our point, it is perfectly understandable that a rule that is intended as a bureaucratic change and/or an efficiency might create injustice. But an important diagnostic clue that chicanery is afoot is when the proponents of a decision then turn a blind eye to any unfair results. Such willful neglect strongly suggests malicious intent; if that were not the case, if those responsible were only seeking expediency, they would readily recognize and correct objectionable outcomes.
One of the more notorious machinations to escape majority rule is ‘the Hastert Rule’. The now-disgraced Hastert was feared and respected as Speaker of the House for 4 of his 10 terms.2)He has the distinction of serving the longest term of a Republican Speaker in U.S. history, and the ignominy of being the highest ranking elected official to serve prison time. At one point he created his eponymous rule, that ‘the majority of the majority’ could decide issues.
It is cleverly worded, but it is nevertheless a direct assault on majority rule. ‘Majority of the majority’ always refers to a minority, for a simple reason: if it were a majority, we would simply call it a majority. So Hastert created a means to short-circuit democracy and majority rule, and his unfortunate legerdemain is still accepted procedure in Congress.
So how can this help us fix Congress? We need to eliminate the Hastert Rule in picking Congressional leadership. Under the current system, the majority party goes to a private meeting, chooses their leader with what will almost always represent a ‘majority of the majority’ of the House or the Senate, and then their entire delegation votes as a block in open session.
So what would happen if ballots for Congressional leadership were kept private?
Privacy of the Ballot Box
This may sound radical; we have a right to know how our elected officials vote. But we must weigh the costs and benefits of any decision.
I would argue that for voting on specific bills, we have the right to know how our elected officials vote. But when voting for leadership, just as when citizens vote for our leadership, the votes need to be cast privately. If not, powerful interests can twist arms to force their agendas.
Think about the outcomes of such a procedural change. If both parties vote their minds in an open session, without fear of political retaliation, then suddenly moderates would prevail. The minority party would vote for a moderate member of the majority party that they felt they could work with, as would moderates of the majority party. The extremists, on both sides, would suddenly be nullified; the tails would stop wagging the dog, and we could fix Congress.
And the country would start moving forward again. The leadership would owe their primary loyalty to wise statesmen rather than cunning partisans. Leadership would comprise those who were the most skillful and forging compromise, and in finding common ground for the moderate majority.
As I noted, it’s a simple idea. I suspect it would be popular with the voters.
Which means it assuredly would be unpopular with the political hacks: the current leadership, the parties’ leadership; lobbyists & bureaucrats; and others who are belly up to the trough.
It may require the Supreme Court to implement this, but ever since Citizens United v. FEC, it’s not clear that the courts will protect us from exactly those powerful interests who wish to short-circuit majority rule, and create empire within the democracy.
But you never know. Real leadership in Congress, or even a rank-and-file revolt among moderates, could make something like this happen. If you like the idea, eMail this to your Congresspersons.
Picture of the Gerrymander courtesy of Wikimedia.
|↑ 1.||Source, Louisiana Secretary of State.|
|↑ 2.||He has the distinction of serving the longest term of a Republican Speaker in U.S. history, and the ignominy of being the highest ranking elected official to serve prison time.|
|↑ 3.||See the number from the musical Lil’ Abner, ‘The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands.’|