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Dirty Politics: The Great American Pastime

by David Yee, published

It was another article about the antics and dirty politics along partisan lines:

As soon as it was known that the elections had given the present House to the Republican party, the leaders of that party began a systematic crusade against the rules of procedure.

While this could have easily been taken from any number of news sources today, this was the leading sentence from a piece in the December 1889 issue of The North American Review. In fact, this entire issue covered a range of topics that are hot button issues today, including divorce and the sanctity of marriage, women in business, religious oppression against agnostics, and four articles debating recent redistricting efforts to "improve" one party's chances at the ballot box.

Have we really learned nothing over the past 125 years? Or, perhaps this is just the way it is supposed to be?

From the founding of our Republic, two great axioms have been held in the highest of regard: the right of the majority to rule and the right of the minority to be heard in a meaningful forum. This is the essence of the division of the houses of Congress. The House of Representatives gave the most populous states the greatest position of power, while the Senate ensured that each state had an equal voice in the process.

Both houses of Congress had the right to unlimited debate (making a filibuster a viable tactic) at the founding of the Republic, but the House Rules Committee eliminated this as an option in 1842. The House had grown to 203 Representatives, the Senate was still only 52 strong. What was intended as an effort to give all Representatives a chance at a voice became a rubber stamp approval for all bills supported by the majority.

James Madison wrote about the "overbearing majority" in the Federalist #10, but consensus was never his goal:

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

A democracy where everyone is the same has identical results as one where liberty has been destroyed! We need to celebrate and embrace our diversity -- not expect conformity as the ultimate goal of being an "American."

The Founding Fathers are too often described in terms of a mythos of demigods that all worked together to overthrow tyranny and bring in a novus ordo seclorum. People seem to forget that the Constitution was only signed by 39 of the 55 delegates -- hardly the unanimous consent that can be made into legends.

Some of them didn't just disagree -- some of them really hated each other's guts! While the Hamilton-Burr duel is probably the most famous, several signers of the Declaration of Independence met with an untimely end from a dueling pistol, as well as numerous other early congressman.

But one of the few things that the Founders had in common was putting into place a form of government where the majority ruled, but the minority still had a voice. Not all of the Founders were happy with this, but it was the best compromise that could be presented to the States for ratification.

Dirty politics is in our blood, but when it crosses the line to silence the minority it fails its purpose -- a line that far too many are willing to cross.

George W. Bush famously employed the phrase, "Up or down vote!" Which essentially meant, we want our candidate to be voted in without the chance for dissent. Obama would use the same phrase when his health care bill came up for a vote. In each case, the majority party was attempting to silence opposition by turning the average American against the very process that was formed by the Founders.


The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (colloquially termed "Obamacare") is a poster-child example of how the majority rams legislation through the system without regard to the minority opinion.  From the time the bill was introduced into the House until final passage and signature into law only seven months had elapsed -- quite fast in terms of legislation.

Debate on the Act didn't revolve around the merits of the program, but on whether or not Senate closure could be met. The Republican focus was solely on killing the measure through filibuster, while the Democrat focus was solely on gaining the last critical votes to force closure. The actual merits of the legislation had nothing to do with the debating process -- this was a law that was passed solely on procedure, not the merit of the bill itself.

In the end, the Democrats passed the legislation with 60-39 (Ted Kennedy's seat was vacant) and the House likewise passed along mostly party lines with 34 Democrats defecting. The end result has been numerous legal challenges to the Act, with the arguing points ranging from unlawful taxation to infringement on religious freedoms.

A lesser known health care law, The Genetic Information Nondisclosure Act of 2008 (GINA), was first submitted to Congress in 1995 (yes, thirteen years earlier). It was defeated in committee multiple times, yet had broad support by various members of Congress.

The final version was a version that had been thoroughly debated and compromised by both sides of the aisle -- producing a final draft bill that almost everyone could agree with. Lone maverick Ron Paul (R-TX) was the only dissenting vote for this health care bill.

There have been few, if any, legal challenges to this Act, and it was passed one vote shy of unanimously by as sharply divided a Congress as the Obamacare program faced.

The real lesson to be learned is that the minority opinions were valued and debated (and even included) in the passage of GINA over a period of time. Consensus was gained and the Act was overwhelmingly passed.

It would be naive to think that this could happen with every bill that comes before Congress, but it can happen even in a sharply divided and bitterly entrenched Congress. Too often "consensus" is a code word for "bend to my point of view." In general, we need more laws that are formed and passed like GINA.

Lawmakers and the public need to think, and think very cautiously about changing the procedural rules in Congress. Keeping in mind that majorities ebb and flow, it's unlikely for one party to stay in power forever. What was once used to your advantage can be later used as a weapon against you.

We need to focus on passing legislation that benefits all Americans -- not just legislation that benefits one side or another. Political jockeying that stacks the rules in the favor of one party only backfires in the end. Bills should be passed on their merits, not on the procedure that got them passed. Partisanship is a good thing as long as it generates laws that represent the "real" America.

I personally agree with Thoreau, "That government is best which governs least." A cumbersome system produces less legislation, laws that represent the center-opinion, and more healthy debate. Plus, it makes for good viewing on C-SPAN.

The only thing that would be better is if they allowed dueling in Washington, D.C. again. Not only would politics be more exciting, but the turnover would be greater. Okay, that was a bit of sarcasm, but we need more of the political grandstanding that slows the process down -- not less.

Dirty politics isn't just a reality in America, it's our favorite spectator sport!

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