Tag Archives: Democracy

How a Bill Shouldn’t Become a Law

Remember the old cartoon developed to teach students “how a bill becomes a law”?

A proposal is introduced. It is assigned to a committee that reviews it, hears testimony about it, and deliberates its merits. The committee then votes whether to advance the measure. If the vote is affirmative, the entire chamber votes on it.

In bicameral legislatures (those with both a House and Senate), a positive vote sends the bill to the other house, where the process is repeated.

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma is teaching young people–who are disproportionately interested in the fate of HJR 3–a different lesson.

What if a bill the Speaker really wants passed is assigned to a committee that actually does its job–a committee that deliberates based on the evidence before it and the testimony it has heard? What if that committee then concludes that the bill should be defeated?

Why, you just change the rules.

You don’t abide by the decision of the lawmakers you assigned to make that decision.  You cheat.

Speaker Brian Bosma insists that there is nothing unusual in his decision to take HJR 3 away from the committee to which it was originally assigned. And it’s true that some bills are reassigned, mostly in order to expedite the process, or because on closer examination the bill really belonged elsewhere.

In this case, the change was made for one reason only: to get the result Bosma wants. The decision he couldn’t get playing by the rules.

Even more incredibly, the Speaker has scheduled the new committee’s vote for tomorrow. The vote will be taken without the benefit of evidence or testimony–but then, as we’ve seen, the Speaker considers evidence and testimony irrelevant. The only thing committee members need to to know is what the Speaker wants them to do.

Usually, the power plays and the wheeling/dealing is done behind the scenes. This time, that wasn’t possible. This time, everyone got to see what is seldom on public display: the House leadership’s absolute contempt for democracy and the rules of fair play.




Sunday Sermon

I was reading a paper sent to me by a member of our Center’s National Advisory Board, and was struck by the following paragraph:

Democratic modes of association are not given by nature; on this the historical record could not be clearer. Rather, they are built, and much of the construction work is done by people who share an understanding of what kind of polity they are trying to create. These people are not born grasping the difficult political principles of limited government, civil rights and liberties, toleration and equality before the law. These are social, moral and cognitive achievements.

Those “social, moral and cognitive achievements” are missing from the zealots who are currently holding Congress–and the American government–hostage.

We ordinary Americans will bear the brunt of their absence.

The Root of the Problem

Paul Volcker is a longtime, widely respected public servant. Most of us know of him through his service as head of the Federal Reserve, but his interest in good government is wider than fiscal policy. That interest has led him to create a new organization–the Volcker Alliance. This new initiative has grown out of what is described as Volcker’s deep concern about public mistrust of government, partisan polarization, and the low level of status/prestige associated with career public service in the United States.

I share his concerns. And I hope that the Volcker Alliance will focus upon the roots of the problem.

Any reader of this blog can probably guess what my analysis of our current situation is.  I am absolutely convinced that public administration practice–the daily decisions of the elected and appointed people who run government at all levels– take place in a culture that has been shaped by  American constitutional, legal, and political values.  Public decisions and actions must be seen as consistent with those values in order for citizens to  trust them.

One of the reasons I am so concerned (okay, maybe obsessed) about civic literacy is that I firmly believe the electorate must be sufficiently knowledgable about our national principles/values to make accurate judgments about their elected officials’ compliance with them.

Our constitutional values create the framework for moral decision-making in the public sector. Public confidence that policymakers are guided by them is an essential element of perceived legitimacy–and the electorate’s belief in the legitimacy of governing institutions is a precondition to the ability of public managers to govern at all.

I teach at a school of public affairs, so I obviously believe in that it is important for our public administrators to have the requisite skills to implement chosen policies. But even the most able technocrat can’t function properly without legitimacy: public acceptance of his role and his right to exercise authority.

If I am correct about that (and there is a good deal of scholarship suggesting that I am) then the widespread belief that public officials are just beneficiaries of political gamesmanship–gerrymandering, vote suppression, etc.–is corrosive of the public’s confidence and undermines the public manager’s ability to do her job.

Let me suggest a somewhat weird analogy.

In Florence, Italy, in one of that city’s many museums, there is a famous marble statue of two men wrestling. One of them has his hands around the testicles of the other, and ever since we first saw  it, my husband has always referred to it as the  ”fight fair, dammit” statue.

A functioning democracy depends on the citizenry’s confidence that the “fight” was fair.  The idea is that we contend in the public arena for the support of the voters; we make our respective cases, our voices are heard and our arguments considered, and citizens choose whom they prefer in a fair election, after which, we come together and work with the people the voters freely chose.

If the election wasn’t fair–if boatloads of special-interest money drowned out the voices of certain candidates, if one party or the other abused the redistricting process, or gamed the system to dissuade some constituencies from voting–the winners cannot expect the losers to cheerfully abide by the results. People who use these tactics may win elections, but they lose legitimacy and the public trust.

If we want to restore public trust in our government, we need to fight fair, dammit.


This Blew My Mind

A former student–President of the Chamber of Commerce in his small Indiana town–sent me a link to this Ted Talk.

There are several “nits” one might pick, but it is a fascinating argument, and well worth the 20 minutes it takes to listen. At the very least, it’s a reproach to arrogant assumptions about the way others should live….

That said, it brings to mind an important point raised by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom: the issue is not democracy, it is liberty. Living under the tyranny of a majority is not appreciably different than living under the tyranny of an autocrat. There can be a wide variety of mechanisms for making decisions about governing. We should judge them not just by their effect on the material well-being of the governed, but by the degree to which they respect fundamental individual rights.

Worthwhile Reminders

I finally got around to reading “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker Palmer yesterday, and was struck by his observation that it isn’t disagreement that makes our politics so contentious–it is demonization.

Back in the day, as they say, I remember Dick Lugar responding to challenges by saying “That’s an issue upon which people of good faith can differ.” By the time he was attacked by Tea Party purists, that simple recognition–that otherwise good people can differ in their analysis of a situation–had become heresy in some precincts.

When we de-humanize those who disagree with us, we make conversation–and conversion–impossible. I’ll grant that some folks are so rigid, so afraid to consider facts that might be contrary to their own worldview, that reasonable debate is not possible. (As a friend of mine used to say, you can’t reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into.) But those tend to be folks on the fringe. When we write off everyone on the other side of an issue, we abandon any possibility of productive discourse.

Alexander Hamilton addressed this very human tendency in Federalist #1: “So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy….In politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

Later in that same essay, he points out that partisans are unlikely to sway others to their opinions or to increase the “number of their converts” by the “loudness of their declamations and the bitterness of their invective.”

As difficult as it may be in an era positively dominated by invective and loudness, those of us who care about the conduct of public affairs need to work on substituting vigorous but respectful disagreement for demonization. Otherwise, the public square will be entirely dominated by the “true believers” of all sorts who are so vested in labeling and attacking that they cannot participate in anything remotely resembling democratic discourse.

In an era where every ideologue claims fidelity to the Founders, maybe we should actually listen to one.