The Republicans Democracy Disorder

Rep. Barney Frank

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The House of Representatives is the only part of the American government where the principle of one person, one vote obtains.

The Republicans are bulimic when it comes to democracy in the House. It causes them serious digestive unrest.

But the Republicans have been running the House in a way that purposefully abuses this principle. They have found a way to shelter many of their members from taking positions that they know to be unpopular with voters. To counter this short-circuiting of democracy, I and three Democratic colleagues have proposed a package of reforms, Amending the Rules of the House to Protect the Integrity of the Institution.”

Our goal is to allow the House of Representatives to create public policy that is democratically sustainable. Representative democracy is being thwarted by current Republican practice. The Republican leadership has gotten very good at holding roll call votes open and marshalling its troops. This gives them the ability to win by changing only as many votes as they need to pass legislation, thereby allowing some Republican members of Congress who support this ruse to vote against the legislation. Their purpose is to let Republican members hide from the public, so that they can give their constituents an impression that is contrary to where they really stand. That allows members to boast about how they voted against the Republican leadership 40, 50, 60, 70 percent of the time, when in fact they voted with the Republican leadership 100 percent of the time when they were needed.

The last time we had a scare of an airplane going over the Capitol and we had to evacuate, we were in the midst of a roll call vote. Every member exited, waited to receive word that it was safe and then returned to continue the vote. That roll call was still concluded in less time than the roll call on prescription drugs. But that’s only one example. 

In our attempt to reform and provide oversight of the Government Sponsored Enterprises of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, we had a proposal to take 5 percent of the after-tax profits and put it into affordable housing. The conservatives on the Financial Services Committee moved to strike that provision and they lost 53-17. They then got the Republican leadership not to strike it, but to impose outrageous restrictions so that radical groups like the Catholic Church could not participate in providing such housing and that groups that did provide it could not do any voter registration. They knew that would fail if it was voted on, so they put that into a manager’s amendment that had many other things in it that were appealing to people, including a preference for the hurricane victims. Even then the Republican leadership wouldn’t allow a vote on it. 

All we were asking for was a vote. But they knew that if we had voted on that provision, they would have lost. Under the proposal we’ve made, I as a ranking member of the committee could have said, I want a vote on this.”

And that’s why we have introduced this proposal to try to vindicate democracy, particularly the principle that constituents ought to know how their representatives are voting. Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), one of my co-sponsors, put it this way: As with the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the centralization of authority in the House of Representatives has come at a disastrous cost for democracy, decency and the public interest. The public has awoken to the folly of current leaders’ practice of passing bills only with a majority of the majority. The result is votes held open for hours to allow for vote buying; huge bills, with nefarious special interest riders attached, rushed to the floor after midnight so Members and the public can’t read them; budget rules routinely waived to permit deficit-adding tax cuts. It’s time to put the people’s voice back into the People’s House.”

The Republicans are bulimic when it comes to democracy in the House. It causes them serious digestive unrest and the reason is – this is not an abstraction – that they are pushing public policies that they understand to be unpopular. In some cases, that could be courageous if you are standing up for something that is right and just but not publicly popular. However, in general, it is wrong to have a set of procedures that musters majorities of the House of Representatives on unpopular issues by allowing the members to hide behind various rules and procedures so that their constituents don’t know what they are really doing.

The United States is now trying to instruct the people of Iraq and Afghanistan in democracy. We have helped to form legislative bodies. But if they get C-SPAN in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should have a line running across the bottom of the screen that warns, Please do not try this at home.”

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