party rule: plebiscite, not parliamentary, democracy

There are a number of assumptions that are needed for American governance to work. One is that the legislative branch is the realm of debate and compromise. The need for such debate and dialog is the foundation of government (and the root principle that also gives rise to such secondary concepts as freedom of speech).

The Republican Party has rejected this model utterly. Rather than compromise between majority and minority, the new rule is "plebiscitary democracy" - the small cadre of leaders of the Majority party decide policy unilaterally, and the entire Party membership is coerced into voting as a single block. Thus the Party ideology trumps all other concerns, including those concerns of the people whose interests representatives were elected to serve.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the GOP tactics to pass the Medicare bill:

If anyone doubted the rules had changed, House Republican leaders ended all illusions in the early hours of Saturday morning by holding open a 15-minute roll call vote for an unprecedented two hours and 51 minutes. At the end of the normal time for voting, Republican leaders faced defeat on the drug bill by a two-vote margin. Eventually, two Republicans were hammered into switching their votes.

"I don't mean to be alarmist, but this is the end of parliamentary democracy as we have known it," said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. The new system amounted to "plebiscitary democracy" in which leaders of the House have imposed such a strong sense of party discipline that they will ultimately pass whatever legislation they bring to the floor. "The Republican Party in the House is the most ideologically cohesive and disciplined party in the democratic world," Frank said. In response, House Democrats were more united in opposition to the bill than Democratic senators, who are operating as if the older system of give-and-take were still in force.

Edward M. Kennedy was one senator who believed the old system could still work. He had urged his colleagues to pass an earlier version of the drug bill on the assumption that Republicans would agree to a compromise acceptable to Democrats.

Instead, House and Senate negotiators pushed the Senate bill to the right by adding in Medicare privatization experiments, big HMO subsidies and medical savings accounts. These and other changes pushed Kennedy to lead the last-ditch fight against the final version of the bill.

When the majority party decides it has the votes, and can bend the roll call itself to ensure that the votes are there, we are only one step away from the party deciding that it holds the votes of its members as proxy, and dispensing with the roll call altogether.

And after that, why bother with the formality of voting at all?

UPDATE: more on the history of the 15-minute rule, and comment:

The Medicare prescription drug vote -- three hours instead of 15 minutes, hours after a clear majority of the House had signaled its will -- was the ugliest and most outrageous breach of standards in the modern history of the House. It was made dramatically worse when the speaker violated the longstanding tradition of the House floor's being off limits to lobbying by outsiders (other than former members) by allowing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson on the floor during the vote to twist arms -- another shameful first.

The speaker of the House is the first government official mentioned in the Constitution. The speaker is selected by a vote of the whole House and represents the whole House. Hastert is a good and decent man who loves the House. But when the choice has been put to him, he has too often opted to abandon that role for partisan gain.

Democracy is a fragile web of laws, rules and norms. The norms are just as important to the legitimacy of the system as the rules. Blatant violations of them on a regular basis corrode the system. The ugliness of this one will linger.

The writer is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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