Wayne O’Leary

New House of Lords

The excruciating agony of the health-care debate — the endless back and forth, the meaningless hearings, the inability to resolve issues, and the final unsatisfactory product — proved one thing beyond a doubt: the American system of government at the national level does not work. Capitol Hill is dysfunctional, plain and simple. Without major structural change, it promises to steadily worsen over time and, ultimately, grind to a halt.

There is a certain irony to this state of affairs. While Americans are losing the ability to govern themselves, they are simultaneously instructing the world on how to properly manage a democracy. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Honduras, Venezuela, or any of a dozen other places, Washington officialdom is energetically demanding that countries put their governing systems in order. Always, there is the implied threat of intervention: Get right or get invaded. So it’s something of a shock for many Americans to come face to face with the realization that their own governing institutions are broken almost beyond repair. Congress couldn’t produce decent health- insurance legislation, but it did produce stark, undeniable evidence of its own ineptitude. There are a number of reasons for this humorless practical joke, but in essence they boil down to two things: the influence of money and congressional inertia.

The money part of the equation applies equally to both houses of Congress. Most everyone is aware of the debilitating corrosiveness of corporate campaign contributions and special-interest lobbying. What’s less well known, however, is the extent of Wall Street’s inroads among federal lawmakers through the investment process. Since 1990, direct personal stock ownership among members of the House and Senate has soared, tripling since 2001 alone. According to Washington Post investigators, over half of Congress now owns stock, and 68 elected individuals have holdings exceeding $100,000.

The innately corrupting effect of this Wall Street-Washington connection reached full flower this past year during discussions and negotiations over health care. Citing the Washington Post once more, it appears that 30 key officeholders helping to draft health legislation simultaneously had financial holdings in various medical-related industries totaling $11 million. Further, those congresspersons with investments potentially affected by the pending reform had combined holdings of $27 million. Is it any surprise that what finally emerged from the process contained no public option, but fully preserved the health-care profits of the insurance, drug, managed-care, hospital, and medical-device industries?

House members and senators will say, as many have, that their personal financial dealings do not influence their votes. In terms of the most crass and blatant forms of grubby self-interest, this may be true. But in the broader scheme of things — whether, for example, a revamped health system should be public and nonprofit or private and for-profit — personal self-interest, however indirect, cannot help but impact voting habits. How many legislators would knowingly disassemble a system that has lined their pockets and paved the yellow brick road to their future lives after politics? On the other hand, they can rationalize a vote to undermine the public good almost without consciously realizing it. Such psychological denial and compartmentalization explains in large measure the health-care framework Americans may live under in upcoming years; it is also liable to dictate the sort of financial-services industry we will be left with when Congress finishes its banking reforms in the next year or so.

But there is another great influence besides money leading to governmental dysfunctionality. It can be called operational inertia - - the inbred reluctance to alter the evolutionary direction of existing public institutions. Leading case in point: a consensual resistance to any and all initiatives aimed at halting the malignant infection eating away at the US Senate. Once hailed as the world’s greatest deliberative body (a laughable notion today), the Senate was shown in 2009 to have reached its nadir as an arm of government; it’s now an unrepresentative, undemocratic, and unworkable chamber — in short, a travesty unworthy of the people for whom it purportedly speaks.

The Senate not only directly distorts democracy by its constitutional overrepresentation of rural states with tiny populations — Utah and South Dakota have greater per capita voting power than California and New York — it also uses its arcane and extra-constitutional rules and procedures to indirectly frustrate the democratic process. Primary among these arbitrary roadblocks to popular government is the filibuster (unlimited debate, actual or threatened), initially employed selectively by southern senators to obstruct civil-rights bills, but now an all-purpose tool, sanctified nowhere in law, to deny majority rule and prevent reformist legislation.

The Senate has always been an innately conservative body; it was deliberately designed as such by the Founders. James Madison, in Federalist numbers 62 and 63, supported its anti- democratic character as a bar to “the impulse of sudden and violent passions” and as “a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.” Men of property and wisdom, in other words, would protect the people from themselves. But even Madison, in defending the minority power conferred on small states by the Senate, had second thoughts: “It must be acknowledged that this complicated check on legislation may in some instances be injurious as well as beneficial.” In our own time, an institutional restraint against extremist, mob-rule democracy on the model of Huey Long’s 1930s Louisiana has degenerated to the point that it’s a barrier to democracy of any kind.

The modern US Senate, with its crazy-quilt add-on of internal rules and customs, presently permits no bill of any significance to pass without 60 of 100 votes — a three-fifths super majority. This is democracy denied, as last year’s blockage of popularly endorsed aspects of health-care reform demonstrated. Madison never envisioned such a check; he would be horrified to find the Senate he helped devise become analogous to Britain’s outmoded House of Lords, dominated until recent times by foot-dragging, reactionary peers created by hereditary birthright.

Is it too much, then, to demand that the Senate end its bizarre and imperious attachment to minority rule? Senators can act to reestablish a 51-vote threshold for passing laws whenever they want. If they don’t, it’s tantamount to making an unsocial gesture to the public at large of the sort most often seen on crowded highways at rush hour.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two books.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2010


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