Thursday, March 10, 2005

Is the Opposite of Progress Congress?

Welcome to the Procedural Republic, where everything is decided by rules and no discussion of them is permitted. The Debate Link has offered a concise and brutal potrayal of how the Republican Leadership has run Congress, consolidating power and stifling dissent, both from the Democrats and from their own party. It's mostly based off a report from Louise Slaughter on the rules themselves and the statistics of what they've affected. A lot of it is through the basic death of the "open rules" procedures that allows amendments and the abuse of the "emergency" status of bills. This has led to some real travesties of democracy, as sampled here:

"A shortlist of amendments prevented from even receiving a vote because of Republican tactics include "Rep. Spratt's amendment on the Defense authorization bill to speed up the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union (H. Res. 247), Rep. Lantos' amendment to give tax credits to American businesses that continue paying their employees who get called into active military duty in Iraq (H. Res. 681), or Rep. Collin Peterson's amendment on the Intelligence authorization bill to increase the intelligence community's resources for counterterrorism activities (H. Res. 686)" (pg. 26). The objection to these tactics doesn't hinge on the relative merit of these bills, I'm sure Tom DeLay has a perfectly reasonable justification for why he does not want to help secure nuclear material in the Soviet Union, a task that both John Kerry and George W. Bush agreed was a integral part the highest national security issue America faces today, curbing nuclear proliferation. The point is that a deliberative democracy requires all voices to be heard. If the majority party doesn't want these ideas made into law, then they can vote them down. That's one of the perks of being the majority (and is something that distinguishes Democratic use of the filibuster in the Senate, more on that in a moment)."

The point isn't so much that the leadership are abusing their power. That's what party leaders do for a living. It's that it's being used on such an unprecedented scale, and wielded so cavalierly against the rank and file of their own party. Since the Gingrich Revolution, there has been a remarkable centralization in Congress in the hands of the party leaders. As much as people want to say the Democrats were the same way, they weren't. They actually had a really hard time consolidating power in party leadership because of numerous powerful committee chairs and subcommittees powered by seniority more than anything else. Gingrich did away with much of that, centralizing power in the hands of the speaker and majority leader. This was good to a further extent, but the second generation of the GOP majority, with Delay and Hastert replacing Armey and Gingrich, took it much further.

This has enormous consequences, one of the obvious of which is that it removes the abilities of Congressmen to offer creative changes and improvements to legislation or to express the interests of their constituents. In America, we've always had a tradition of voting with a greater emphasis on the individual politician than the party. Our system is not like European Proportional Representation Systems where you vote for a party without knowing the individual's name, and that party rules as a Borg-like collective at the authoritarian rule of the Prime Minister. We've always been more deliberative, creative, and flexible than that. We've started down the European path, though, with party leadership meaning everything and individual members beans and cogs in the machine.