Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

DISCLOSE Act becomes latest victim of Senate Republicans' obstructionism

A bill to increase transparency and accountability in American elections became the latest victim of Senate Republicans' obstructionism today, failing to advance on a party line vote of fifty nine to thirty nine.

I don't need to break down the vote. Every Democrat voted aye, every Republican voted nay. Two Republicans did not vote. There were no exceptions.

The bill, officially known as the DISCLOSE (Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections) Act, is comprised of seven principal ideas, as outlined by Senators Feingold, Leahy, and Schumer:
  1. Enhance Disclaimers: Make CEOs and other leaders take responsibility for their ads.
  2. Enhance Disclosures: It is time to follow the money.
  3. Prevent Foreign Influence: Foreign countries and entities should not be determining the outcome of our elections.
  4. Shareholder/Member Disclosure: We should allow shareholders and members to know where money goes.
  5. Prevent Government Contractors from Spending: Taxpayer money should not be spent on political ads.
  6. Provide the Lowest Unit Rate for Candidates and Parties: Special interests should not drown out the voices of the people.
  7. Tighten Coordination Rules: Corporations should not be able to “sponsor” a candidate.
All of these are excellent, uncommonly sensible ideas. Together, in the form of the DISCLOSE Act, they constitute a basic, measured initial response to the Corporations United ruling. Unfortunately, this legislation isn't going anywhere because not even one Republican apparently has the courage to buck their party.

Of course, Democrats shouldn't need any Republican votes to advance this legislation. Fifty nine votes represents fifty nine percent of the Senate. That's easily more than a majority. But it's not enough to invoke cloture.

The Senate's stupid, backwards, and arcane rules are standing in the way of the correct functioning of American democracy. Majority rule is being sabotaged for the benefit of a privileged few. In the past, the Senate's rules were not such a hindrance, because that body has never had a minority caucus that was as belligerent and obstinate as this Congress' Senate Republicans. It's a miracle that Democrats have been able to get anything done at all.

It's cliche to say this, but if our founding fathers were alive today, they'd be aghast to see this sorry state of affairs. Our founders considered requiring supermajorities to be completely undemocratic.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, No. 22:
[W]hat at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. Congress, from the nonattendance of a few States, have been frequently in the situation of a Polish diet, where a single VOTE has been sufficient to put a stop to all their movements.
For those who don't know what "Polish diet" means, Hamilton is referring to the eighteenth century Polish parliament (the Sejm), which, at the time of the American revolution, was incapable of doing anything unless there was unanimous consent. A little background from Wikipedia:
From the mid-17th century onward, any objection to a Sejm resolution — by either an envoy or a senator — automatically caused the rejection of other, previously approved resolutions. This was because all resolutions passed by a given session of the Sejm formed a whole resolution, and, as such, was published as the annual constitution of the Sejm, e.g., Anno Domini 1667. In the 16th century, no single person or small group dared to hold up proceedings, but, from the second half of the 17th century, the liberum veto was used to virtually paralyze the Sejm, and brought the Commonwealth to the brink of collapse. The liberum veto was finally abolished by the May Constitution of Poland in 1791.
The way things are going, we're slip-sliding towards oligarchy and away from democracy. The filibuster rules are to Republicans what the liberum veto was to the obstructionists in the Polish Sejm in the 1700s. We've got to put a stop to this madness and change the Senate's rules.

Or gridlock will continue to ensue, as Hamilton foresaw:
If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.
Tedious delays. Contemptible compromises of the public good. Those phrases certainly serve as apt descriptors for the situation we find ourselves in today.

James Madison, our fourth President and the Father of the Constitution, also condemned the notion of supermajorities in The Federalist, No 52:
It has been said that more than a majority ought to have been required for a quorum; and in particular cases, if not in all, more than a majority of a quorum for a decision. That some advantages might have resulted from such a precaution, cannot be denied. It might have been an additional shield to some particular interests, and another obstacle generally to hasty and partial measures. But these considerations are outweighed by the inconveniences in the opposite scale. In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority.
In this passage, Madison is explaining why the Constitution does not require that more than a majority of the House and Senate be present for a quorum. Requiring a supermajority is undemocratic because it allows a minority to prevent business from being transacted, when there is in fact a majority present.

If the founders had wanted forty one senators... or thirty five senators... or five senators... or just one senator to be able to hold up legislation, they would have put a clause to that effect in the Constitution. They did not. They expected that the House and Senate would operate democratically. They did not spell out each chamber's rules in the Constitution itself, because they understood that the rules might need to change over time.

While it is true that majority rule goes hand in hand with minority rights, the latter are protected in the Constitution itself. That's why we amended the Constitution during the Civil War. Incredibly, some Republicans are talking about modifying or repealing amendments from that era. That is how backwards they are. They seem to want a country where only white male property owners can vote.

The imposition of such a regime would require undoing every hard-won advance towards universal suffrage in American history.

Sadly, right wing Republicans want to take America back. We want to take America forward — because we know that freedom doesn't stand still. If we don't work to continually expand freedom, radical paleocons, theocons, neocons, and corporate cons will try to contract it. The DISCLOSE Act is an attempt to expand freedom, but it's being undemocratically held hostage by a group of extreme partisans who do not represent the majority of this country.

Until Senate Democrats act to fix the Senate's broken rules, America will continue to be harmed by the obstructionism of Senate Republicans.


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