Now that the GOP is in the minority in Congress, how should liberals respond to the House Republican plea to protect the rights of the minority party?
This is hardly a new question; it's been considered by anyone who has tried to work out how a legislature should function in a democracy. For liberals, the issue boils down to a question of whether we want to be liberals in the classic Politics 101 sense and champions of liberal democracy, or liberals in the contemporary political sense and champions of the poor, the uninsured and the opponents of the Iraq war. To oversimplify, do we want to be democrats or Democrats? It's not surprising, then, that as I sat down to blog about this, I had company sitting on each shoulder, whispering in my ear.
Devil: Well, I see that the worm has turned, the chickens have come home to roost, the shoe is on the other foot, the jig is up and the fat is in the fire. Now that they're outnumbered by Democrats in Congress, the GOP is suddenly taking a keen interest in protecting the rights of the minority party--something they never did when the Democrats were in the minority.
Angel: I too detect a sudden pot/kettle/black convergence. I'm amused by listening to Republican house members whine about how they're not whining about this--the same Republican house members who refused to even consider these measures when they were proposed by the Democrats. And I'm irked by reporting of this issue that conveniently leaves out that fact of recent history.
Devil: I'll tell you what: the Democratic Congressional leadership should send that so-called "Minority Rights" proposal right into the circular file, just like the GOP did. Give them a taste of their own Medicare Part D medicine.
Angel: That's tempting, but it's wrong. The Democrats need to show that unlike the Republicans, they came to Congress to do something more than just exercise power. Democrats have always stood for fairness and respect for minority rights--albeit in other contexts. Freezing out half the Senate and 40% of the House is contrary to those principles.
Devil: You're being naive, giving special rights to the party that offered us none.
Angel: I've been called that before, but that's beside the point. Have you looked at the proposal? Here's what it says:
• Bills should only come to the Floor after full hearings, open subcommittee and committee markup, and with Members having a full 24 hours to review legislation prior to consideration at the subcommittee level.
• Bills should normally be considered under a procedure that allows open, full, and fair debate consisting of a full amendment process that grants all members the right to offer amendments or substitutes.
• Members should be allowed a full 24 hours to examine bills and conference reports before they come to the floor; and rules governing debate must be reported before 10:00 p.m. for a bill to be considered the next day.
These are hardly radical proposals. This is not about special rights. This is about the basic procedural fairness of the legislature of the United States.
Devil: Procedure, procedure, procedure...no wonder the Democrats are such a hapless bunch. The American public doesn't give a damn about procedure; they care about results. They elected Democrats to get things done. If the Democrats don't deliver because they're all hung up on debating society rules, then they'll be out of power again very soon.
Angel: I'd expect nothing less than a classic ends-justifies-the-means argument from you.
Devil: Thank you; I think that's one of my more charming traits. But this isn't an abstract philosophical argument, this is politics. To the victor go the spoils--Andy Jackson, one of the founders of the Democratic Party, believed in that. So do I. The spoils here are the power to enact the legislation that the American public clearly favors without delay, amendment and interference by the GOP. I'd love to hear you explain to some poor woman who's trying to get by on our pitiful minimum wage that she won't get a raise for a while because the Democrats are busy granting the Republicans procedural courtesies. I'd love to hear you tell the wife of the soldier who has just had his tour of duty in Iraq extended that the reason Congress can't stop Bush from escalating the war is because the minority party has tied the majority's hands with amendments, procedure and points of order.
Angel: I'd like to think that we Democrats have evolved somewhat since the days of Jackson. But you mistake me: I'm not just making a point about principle, I'm just as Machiavellian--if not mephistophelean--as you. We are looking at this issue with different time frames. You want do to what is best for our party and our values in the short run, but I've got my eye on the long term. We have a majority in both houses of Congress for the time being, but history being what it is, that won't last forever. We will be a minority party again someday. We should establish a precedent now that will show how we should be treated when that dark day comes.
Devil: Again with the naivete: you really think that people like John Boehner and Roy Blunt or whomever comes after them will care about your precious precedent?
Angel: They certainly won't if such a precedent is never established. But there's more to my long-term argument here. The root reason the Republicans were turned out of office after twelve years is because they got into a mindset where they were convinced that they didn't have to listen to anyone and didn't have to take other opinions and positions into account. It's a mindset that breeds arrogance and corruption, which the public got sick of after a while.
Devil: How ironic that you think that empowering the Republican minority will help keep the Democrats humble and honest. Sort of like expecting convicted embezzlers to help keep your bookkeeping accurate.
Angel: Maybe we should take the advice of one Salon reader who thinks the House Democrats should
impose a little discipline on the misbehaving Republicans. Call it a time out, or call it "Congressional Reconstruction," to borrow a phrase from another era. But Republicans need to spend some time in the naughty chair, and they need, as someone else here said, to eat a little crow. The pious preamble to their CBOR proposal is far from that. Just like on SuperNanny, they don't get released from the naughty chair until they acknowledge what they have done wrong and say they are sorry.
And after the timeout, then the Dems can start instituting minority rights on a phased approach, only moving from one step to the next when the minority party demonstrates that they are committed to playing nice ....
Devil: You know, a man with his head in an icebox and his feet in the oven is statistically comfortable. So you're saying that preserving the minority party's right to fully participate in the legislative process is very, very important, but not so important that we shouldn't go ahead and ram through a few dozen bills that we really, really want first? Talk about the worst of both worlds: we don't get any points for standing on principle but we still get niggled to death by the GOP minority.
Angel: I think most people would see that as a fair and reasonable compromise, the kind of fair and reasonable compromise that has been absent from the Republican leadership for so long.
Devil: Most people don't give a rat's ass about Congressional procedure. They want health care. They want out of Iraq. They want a higher minimum wage.
Angel: They'll get them. The Minority Bill of Rights won't hold things up forever.
Devil: With all due respect, politics should not be your line of work. You don't have a clue.
Angel: And with all due respect to you, deliberative democracy should not be your line of work. You don't have a conscience.