Here's An Idea For Congress: Try Democracy

Monday, April 19, 2010

In both the Senate and the House, the give-and-take that ought to be part of the legislative process is now far too easily shut down. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says that if it wants to address its dysfunction, "Here's An Idea For Congress: Try Democracy."

Strategists for the Democratic and Republican parties are pondering how best to use Congress's vote on health-care reform in the fall elections. Both sides will undoubtedly go overboard in trying to spin the issue in their favor, but it's fair game. Members of Congress went on record with their votes, and now the American public has a chance to weigh the pros and cons of their actions. 

But wait. We may get to hold our representatives to account for health-care overhaul writ large, but on any number of crucial issues, we don't actually know how Congress might have acted. A public option for people seeking an alternative to the private health-insurance market? Not even voted on in the Senate, because a couple of Democratic senators objected to the idea. Malpractice reform as a way of reining in runaway costs? Never made it to the floor for an up-or-down vote. A single-payer system, supported in the polls by a majority of Americans? Not even a floor debate. 

These are key issues, and if you step back a moment, it's actually quite incredible that Congress would try to reform the health-care system without voting on them. 

But then, there are a lot of things Congress doesn't vote on these days. Scores of high-ranking positions in various federal departments have gone unfilled for many months because some senator put a "hold" on the nomination — often for reasons unrelated to the nomination itself. Crucial votes affecting Americans' lives get wrapped up in tit-for-tat political maneuvering that either postpones their consideration or finishes it off altogether. As New York magazine put it recently about an unseemly delay last fall in extending unemployment benefits to laid-off Americans, the bill "spent a month in limbo…before the Senate passed it by a vote of 98-0, suggesting lawmakers spent a full month dickering over a measure that pretty much everyone agreed to from the start." 

It is especially notable these days that a simple majority of senators cannot work their will in the Senate. That body's rules make it possible to threaten a filibuster — in essence, to threaten endless debate — unless 60 votes can be mustered. This makes it exceedingly difficult to accomplish anything. A single senator placing a hold on legislation — as one senator from Kentucky famously did in March on legislation extending unemployment benefits — can gum up not only Capitol Hill, but Americans' lives. 

For much of its regular business, the Senate no longer operates by majority rule. How did that come about in a world-renowned democratic body? 

I want to be careful here. The Senate was designed, in part, to temper runaway popular sentiment and to make sure that issues of great import were considered carefully. Its rules evolved differently from those of the House for just that reason, and there's much to be said for legislating deliberately and thoughtfully — even slowly. 

What we've been seeing of late, however, is not deliberation but frustration — in both senses of that word. With the rise in extreme partisanship on Capitol Hill, the Senate has become a far less functional body. As New York magazine put it, "The same Senate rules that were designed to check populist passions can, when adopted by passionate populists, turn the place into a governing body of 100 autocrats." This cannot be good for the country. 

The issues in the House are different — but quite revealing as a result. There, majority rule isn't the question; it's runaway majority rule. House procedures call to mind Madison's worries about a possible "tyranny of the majority." The House majority routinely and skillfully shapes the rules for procedures on the House floor in order to exclude votes on major policy options and deny members, usually the minority, from offering key amendments that could affect the final shape of legislation. How did that happen in the House — where, supposedly, the people govern? 

On one side of Capitol Hill, then, the give-and-take that ought to be part of the legislative process is now far too easily shut down by the minority. On the other side, it's all too often shut down by the majority. Rules that allowed for a balance between deliberation and effectiveness when followed judiciously are producing the opposite when pushed too far. 

The answer, I think, is to reassert democracy as a goal. At both ends of the Capitol, legislators should have the chance to argue over and then vote on the key issues that Americans care about. There are several instances in which our Constitution calls for more than a simple majority, including overriding a presidential veto or ratifying a Constitutional amendment. On everything else, let's allow a measure onto the floor through a fair process, then vote it up or down by simple majority rule. Why should the world's greatest democracy not practice democracy? 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)