John Buell

Protecting Democracy in a Lame-Duck Congress

The midterm elections are over, and for many of us it seems as though our political responsibilities are over for a while. Yet this election, even after Democrats regain control of the House, has exposed deep flaws in our democracy. Worse still, if we are not politically vigilant, the structural problems of our democracy may continue to grow even before a new Congress is sworn in next January.

Democracy is more than simply the biennial ritual of electing our D.C. representatives. Political theorists have debated at length the nature and prerequisites of democracy, but at a minimum it includes the right to vote for those who govern us, freedom of speech and press, and exposure to a range of political alternatives.

We have just completed an election that for many has only increased suspicions about the future of our democracy. The election has featured concerns about electronic voting machines, more concerns about attempts to suppress voter registration and participation, long lines, and chaotic voter procedures in many states.

Current voter suppression efforts should remind us of the darker side of our political history. Many Americans have assumed our history is characterized by a smooth extension of the franchise first to propertied males and then eventually to all adults, the logical extension of the liberal individualism on which the US was founded. Nonetheless, as Alexander Keyssar's pathbreaking work, The Right to Vote, pointed out, extension of the franchise often involved struggle against those who argued that democracy and individual rights would perish if the feckless poor, emotional home-bound women, or ignorant blacks were allowed to vote.

Today, the claim is often made that strict registration and identification requirements are intended only to reduce voter fraud, yet few examples of such fraud have been adduced. If fraud is really our concern, methods can surely be devised to streamline the verification process. In addition, if we are really interested in giving all classes of citizens a full and equal right to vote, federal elections would be national holidays or would, as in many European nations, extend over a weekend.

The right to vote is inherent neither in our genes nor in the logic of our civilization. Often extension of the franchise occurred only in response to concerns about social turmoil or international opinion. Yet if the right to vote is not inherent in our makeup, 2007 may offer opportunities to extend that right. Concern about new voting technologies and even about voter suppression are not limited only to Democrats, and a nation that claims the mantle of democracy in its dealings abroad can and should be challenged to deliver on that promise at home. What the new Democratic chairs of House committees will do with their new powers obviously remains to be seen, but one benefit of their win is that questions about electoral fairness can be raised without the charge of sore loser.

But even before these challenges can be faced, advocates of democracy may face a more immediate problem. Before the newly elected Congress is sworn in, American democracy will have another opportunity to display one of its striking anomalies. The so-called lame-duck Congress will soon convene. In many other democracies, the winners take over within days or even hours of their triumph. Here, senators and representatives who have been repudiated by their constituents retain significant power for two more months. The future of many of these losers may depend more on the good will of the corporate and lobbying worlds than on their constituents.

Unfortunately, the upcoming lame duck Congress may debate and possibly act on laws fundamental to the future of our democracy, especially laws regarding the Internet. A Congress and a president that were elected in 2004 and has through its so-called K Street Project sought not merely to fund its own causes but to "defund" any opponents is now being asked to eliminate any requirement that the Internet, which was made possible by public funding and public research, be required to treat all intellectual and commercial traffic equally. Other bills pending in Congress would limit the ability of municipalities to expand inexpensive broad band service to their citizens, something at which the private sector has failed miserably.

Such proposals are bad economic policy. Postal, rail and telephone service made an immense contribution to US economic development because they were extended across the country regardless of ability to pay and because regulatory structures forced private carriers to treat all customers as equals. Today, however, in an era when the portals of democracy are becoming more constricted, internet neutrality and internet access are especially vital. They both foster economic growth and also constitute one vehicle by which alternative views can be presented and forms of political mobilization developed at least to resist the closure of political voice.

Citizens interested in the future of democracy cannot afford to sleep during this interregnum. With media increasingly subject to corporate consolidation, an open and vigorous Internet is a vital tool in exposing abuses both by our media and our political authorities. At the very least it is important to contact those senators and representatives to demand that any decisions regarding the future of the internet be made by a fully accountable Congress.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2006

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2006 The Progressive Populist