Legislative Process In The US Two-Party System

by Philip Greenspan

July 19, 2004   


(Swans - July 19, 2004)  Last week, like millions of others, I saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Two distressing legislative events depicted in it reminded me of various anecdotal incidents that epitomize the sterility of the political system.

The first of the Fahrenheit 9/11 events was the joint session of Congress where the 2000 electoral votes were counted. Al Gore officiated as the theft of the presidency that should have been his was confirmed with his acquiescence. One black congressman after another objected to what everyone knew was a blatant Banana Republic coup. The wimp, as protocol required, overruled each one. All that was needed to add a little drama to the ceremony was for just one of the supposedly liberal democratic senators to step forward and object. Where was the political opposition to show that they don't condone fraud in what is alleged to be a democracy?

The second disgrace was John Conyers's response to how the infamous Patriot Act could have been so promptly enacted. That liberal and long-time representative frankly admitted "We don't read most of the bills we pass."

The following anecdotes provide a glimpse of the pathetic but real legislative process. Over the years I heard or read of these incidents. While my memory of the details may no longer be clear the ultimate point is obvious. Perhaps some reader may be able to supply the source and further clarification.

Votes of Conscience

When a new democratic representative took his seat for the first time he was greeted by Sam Rayburn, the long-time Speaker of the House, who welcomed the newcomer with friendly advice. "Relax and don't worry. We're here to help you. Observe the actions of the old-timers for the first year of so. You'll be advised on how to vote on all matters that come up." The freshman interrupted with, "But there are some issues that are most important to me and my constituents. On those matters I must be free to vote my conscience." Sam replied, "Of course. No problem. You'll vote as you wish on items of conscience." Over the next few weeks things went along fairly well for the neophyte. One day, however, Sam advised him to vote YES on an upcoming bill. "I'm sorry, Sam, but on this bill I must vote NO." Sam interrupted with, "I repeat you are to vote YES." "Sam, this is a vote of conscience, you said I would be permitted to vote as I saw fit on matters of conscience. Didn't you Sam?" "Of course I did. And you will always vote as you wish on matters of conscience. But we will let you know what are matters of conscience!"

The following are other instances where votes of conscience clashed with party discipline.

Republican Representative Nick Smith of Michigan is retiring but hopes his son will replace him. Smith was urged by the party to vote for the Medicare Bill. If he did, his son Brad would receive a contribution of $100,000. That offer proved insufficient to sway Nick, so fellow republicans told him they would make sure that Brad would never get into Congress.

When shortly after 9/11 Bush asked Congress for the authority to wage all-out war against the terrorists, every member of both houses but one readily succumbed. That one was democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, California. Her friends within the party pressured her to fall in line but she held out. Although she was ridiculed by the media as a traitor, and received death threats, etc., her constituents approved of her action and have continually returned her to Congress.

Cooperation Between the Opposition Parties

The next incident was told by someone in the Johnson administration. If my faulty memory is correct, it was Jack Valenti.

When Lyndon Johnson was trying to pass civil rights legislation he invited Everett Dirksen, the Wizard of Ooze and Senate Minority Leader, to a chat at the White House. Johnson, a master politician, had been the Majority Leader for many years. Through his efforts much of republican President Eisenhower's program was passed. He was influential not only with his party but with the opposition leadership, i.e. Dirksen, as well. After pouring two drinks Johnson remarked, "Those weren't nice things you said about me in the Senate. After all I'm the president. That's not right!" "But everything was true, Lyndon." Dirksen replied. After a pause and while they were sipping their drinks Johnson spoke. "Now Ev, I need two votes for that civil rights bill coming up. How can we handle this?" "Well there are two vacancies in the courts and I've got a couple of judges to fill them." "Done" was the reply. Dirksen pulled out a list of republican senators and as he perused it remarked, "Now this one can vote for that bill, and this one." Those two chosen senators probably told the folks back home that they voted their conscience.

The next story was disclosed by one of the plaintiff's attorneys on the radio program "Democracy Now."

When lawyers for black farmers were litigating discrimination cases against the Agriculture Department that would eventually provide their clients with hundreds of millions in damages a major legal obstacle confronted them -- a two-year statute of limitations. To overcome that difficulty they went to see President Bill Clinton. After disclosing their problem he picked up his phone and made a call. When it was completed he told the lawyers to schedule an appointment the next day to see republican House Leader Newt Gingrich who would take care of everything.

It is extremely difficult for politicians to be totally independent of their party's discipline but there are a rare few heroic mavericks. Since 1890 only eighteen senators switched their party. A few may have been weaned away by the opposition with various committee assignments or other rewards. But within that group there were some who could no longer go along with their old party. James Jeffords of Vermont was the most recent. A favorite of mine was Wayne Morse of Oregon, a maverick free spirit if there ever was one.

As atrocious as Bush policies are, they were enacted by both democrats and republicans in both the Senate and the House, without any real opposition. No president has legislative authority. He can be completely stymied by the legislative branch. Such is the practical face of democracy in the land of the free and the home of the brave.


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Published July 19, 2004
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