I’ve been shaking my Boggle box to come up with some colorful adjectives to add to the din of words criticizing the Senate for its failure pass the universal background check amendment in the Safe Communities, Safe Schools Act of 2013.
I didn’t get any words as good as egregious or atrocious. Boggle’s 16 cube tray didn’t give me enough letters to produce words as bumptious as those. But I did get the word Fed, and that reminded me of James Madison’s Federalist 10, a paper he wrote in 1787 to argue that “one of the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union is its tendency to break and control the violence of factions.”
Madison defined factions as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse …adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He argued that majority rule would “secure the public good from the danger of factions and preserve the spirit and the form of popular government.”
Sadly, the outcome of this vote is just another example how the filibuster has eroded any and all ability of the Senate to secure the public good. The 46 Senators who voted against cloture put their self-interest ahead of public safety, regardless of the fact that the bill closed all the loopholes in the background check process, a process that today lets 40 percent of guns purchased go unchecked.
The filibuster came into being in 1815. Between 1815 and 1975, Senators were required to stand in the chamber and speak until a 2/3′s vote invoked cloture. It was exercised infrequently because the costs of using it were higher. Two-thirds of Senators had to be present and voting in the chamber, and 3/5′s sworn. In short, they had to sit and listen to the speech until they fell asleep, wore out, or simply couldn’t take it anymore.
In 1975, the Democratic controlled senate strengthened the filibuster. Senators didn’t have to be present to use it or engage in endless debate in the chamber. To invoke cloture, the number of required votes was reduced to 3/5s, or 60 out of 100.
Why did Democrats make these changes? They wanted to make sure that if they lost control of the chamber in some future election, they’d have a reliable way to way to block the Republican party.
The Democrats made a bad move. Since 1975, both parties have abused the filibuster to such an extent that today the Senate shows little productivity, and it’s a rare occurrence that bills do pass. Under majority rule, S.649 passed 54-46, but that doesn’t count because every bill now requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass, a requirement that flies in the face of majority rule.
Just the threat of a filibuster stops legislation in its tracks, and special interests work this to their advantage. The gun lobby compelled those 46 Senators to filibuster the bill by threatening to pull support from their 2014 reelection campaigns.
However, it’s not just the gun lobby influencing senators to filibuster bills. Over the past several years, many powerful liberal and conservative interest groups have helped orchestrate filibusters of multiple good and broadly beneficial legislative proposals.
The filibuster slaps popular government in the face. It has to go. It does nothing but obstruct the democratic process, and it isn’t needed to give the minority party a stronger voice in the chamber. Even if we got rid of it, each Senator still has plenty of rules and procedures at his or her disposal to slow debate.
How we get rid of it, however, is a discussion I’ll reserve for a future column, because we can’t expect the very people who benefit from the filibuster to support eliminating it. One thing’s for sure: If the status quo persists, we won’t see any reasonable gun control laws in this geological age.
By: Jamie Chandler, U. S. News and World Report, April 19, 2013
When the Senate takes up the bill to expand background checks for gun purchases this week, we will hear plenty rationalizations for opposing it similar to the one offered recently by Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected Democrat from North Dakota: “In our part of the country, [gun control] isn’t an issue. This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents.” Heitkamp’s bottom line: “I’m going to represent my state.”
That state has a population that did not crack 700,000 as of last year. In other words, that state is smaller than cities like Columbus, Fort Worth and Charlotte, and is only slightly larger than El Paso, Memphis and Nashville. North Dakota is separate from South Dakota only because Republicans who dominated the Constitutional Convention in 1889 thought it better to carve two Republican-leaning states out of Dakota Territory (railroad politics also played a role). And yet, North Dakota will have as much say this week as California, Texas, New York and Florida—how those 699,000 people “feel” in towns like Minot and Williston and Fargo will matter as much as how 38 million people “feel” in towns like Los Angeles and San Francisco and San Jose. Small, rural states will not only make it much harder to expand background checks to the huge gun shows where a big share of firearms are purchased, they may succeed in passing an amendment that would allow states with lax regulations for concealed-carry to trump stricter rules elsewhere—that is, to allow someone who got a concealed-carry permit in Wyoming (population 576,000, smaller than Portland, Oregon) to carry a concealed weapon in New York, where it’s much tougher to get a permit.
The undemocratic nature of the upper chamber of our legislative branch of government has been noted many times—it is, as the New York Times observed in an in-depth piece just a few months ago, “in contention for the least democratic legislative chamber” in the world, with the 38 million people who live in the 22 smallest states represented by 44 senators, while 38 million Californians are represented by two. But it is worth dwelling on this feature of our government again this week, because there are few issues where it makes itself felt as strongly as on guns. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat, helped carry Obamacare to passage, but here he is on the background check bill: “I don’t support the bill, but I support open debate. Montanans are opposed to this bill—by a very large margin.” Montana’s population? Just over a million—a veritable giant by contrast with North Dakota, but also quite a bit smaller than Dallas, San Antonio and San Diego. And here’s Mark Begich shortly before he became one of two Democrats, along with Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, to decline to even allow the expanded background-check bill to come up for debate: In Alaska, he said, “We love our guns.” That’s nice! In Columbus, which has more people than Alaska’s 731,000, they love their Buckeyes, but that doesn’t mean they get to set national policy around them.
Bring this up, and the guardians of the wide-open spaces throw the Constitution in your face. But it’s worth recalling just how haphazardly this feature of our government came about, that it was not handed down from the mountaintop by James Madison. In fact, Madison, the father of the Constitution, vehemently opposed this design for the Senate when it was being debated at the Constitutional Convention. As a representative of one of the big states, Virginia, he was in favor of—gasp—apportioning votes in both legislative chambers by population. This fact is often lost on the small-state defenders, as I learned in the onslaught I received when I brought this matter up in 2009: They assume that because Madison supported one of the Senate’s initial undemocratic features—having its members selected indirectly, by state legislatures, in order to keep the Senate at a remove from the tempestuous masses—he must have supported undemocratic apportionment. He did not. He drafted the “Virginia Plan,” which called for two chambers, with members allotted by state population. Countering this was the “New Jersey Plan,” which called for only a single chamber with equal representation for each state (remember, this was pre-Short Hills Mall, and New Jersey was at the time a relatively small state.)
The solution, as any good civics student knows, was the Connecticut Compromise, which, as proposed by Connecticut’s delegates to the convention, created two chambers, the lower one apportioned by population, the upper one not. It was also hailed as the “Great Compromise,” which in hindsight makes it look like the first shining example of our political culture’s tendency to hail as achievements any deal that represents a middle point, no matter how shoddy its logic or deleterious its consequences. It’s also awfully ironic that it should be the Connecticut Compromise that may well keep the Senate from responding seriously to the worst act of mass violence ever perpetrated in Connecticut.
What to do? When, some time ago, I put this whole issue to Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat whose retirement led to Heitkamp’s ascension, he was taken aback: “This was the grand bargain that was struck when the Founding Fathers determined the structure and form of the United States Congress… Are you proposing changing the Constitution?”
Maybe I am. At the time of the not-so-Great Compromise, the largest state, Virginia, was 11 times bigger than the smallest, Delaware. The ratio between California and Wyoming is now 66 to 1, yet they have the same sway in the Senate. Could the Founders have envisioned that? And are we OK with that? If so, just don’t be surprised if the gun bill is blocked or seriously weakened this week despite polls showing overwhelming support for expanded background checks. Undemocratic institutions produce undemocratic results. Mr. Madison could tell you that.
By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, April 16, 2013
Newt Gingrich has adopted the late organizer as a punching bag, but he and Alinsky share a view of America and reverence for the Founding Fathers.
In his victory speech the night of the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich declared:
The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky…. What we are going to argue is that American exceptionalism, the American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the American Federalist papers, the Founding Fathers of America are the source from which we draw our understanding of America. [President Obama] draws his from Saul Alinsky, radical left-wingers, and people who don’t like the classical America.”
Gingrich’s statement raises two questions. One, what is the “classical America” of the founding fathers, and two, who is Saul Alinsky?
As an historian, Gingrich should know better than to confuse compromise with consensus. There was little all-encompassing agreement among the Founding Fathers. Does Gingrich mean to stake his campaign on Alexander Hamilton’s proposal of a life term for the president? James Madison’s idea that the federal legislature should be able to veto state laws? Would he have preferred Benjamin Harrison‘s proposal that slaves should be counted as half a person for purposes of representation, or is he satisfied with the three-fifths compromise? Enough.
As to Saul Alinsky, the Chicago organizer who died when Barack Obama was a 10-year old boy in Hawaii, it is hard to figure out why Gingrich is so fixated on a man whose most notable achievement was organizing Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s to combat inhumane working conditions. You would think from Gingrich’s allusions that Alinsky must have been a Marxist, maybe even a Communist. His biographer Sanford Horwitt is clear: Alinsky was neither. Or you can just read Alinsky himself — has Gingrich? — who wrote in his 1971 Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, “To protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare.’”
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Rules for Radicals is how engaged Alinsky is with the very people that Gingrich positions as his opposites. Alinsky opens his book with a quotation from Thomas Paine, and draws his examples, approvingly, from the lives of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Francis Marion, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Federalist Papers.
Here’s a pop quiz. Below are four quotations. One is from Saul Alinsky, one from Newt Gingrich, one from Thomas Jefferson, and one from Thomas Paine. See if you can figure out which is which:
- “Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.”
- “[The] eternal search for those values of equality, justice, freedom, peace, a deep concern for the preciousness of human life, and all those rights and values propounded by Judeo-Christianity and the democratic political tradition…. This is my credo for which I live and, if need be, die.”
- “I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change…have a natural reaction…. I think because I’m so systematically purposeful about changing our world. [I am] much more intense, much more persistent, much more willing to take risks to get it done.”
- “I hope we shall crush… the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare… to challenge our government to a trail of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
It’s easy to cherry-pick quotations to serve your rhetorical point, but I am confident these lines represent the views of their authors: Paine, Alinsky, Gingrich, and Jefferson, respectively. Alinsky believed that people whose interests are not respected by government, who are maligned or discriminated against or taken advantage of, should organize to advocate for their interests. He fought against racism and for better working conditions. His politics were unequivocally left-wing, but he believed forcefully in democracy as “the best means toward achieving” the values he professed. And he believed democracy came with personal responsibility. Alinsky sounds downright Gingrichian when he criticizes “people who profess the democratic faith but yearn for the dark security of dependency where they can be spared the burden of decisions.” For those people, “the fault lies not in the system but in themselves.”
So why is Gingrich so fixated on Alinsky? Maybe Gingrich is playing a game familiar to all graduate students: throw out a name you’re pretty confident few others have heard of in order to make yourself sound smart. If the name happens to sound Jewish and European, and therefore might raise the specter of a politics Alinsky himself wanted no part of, all the better. Gingrich has invented a straw man, an imagined un-American, and set him up against an imagined “classical” American past. None of that helps our political debate. As I have suggested elsewhere, bad history is worse than no history at all.
There may be reasons to criticize the real Saul Alinsky, but he belongs on the roll call of those who worked for, not against, a better America. Gingrich proclaims “American exceptionalism.” If the flawed, contentious Founding Fathers agreed on anything, it was that power does not come by divine right but rather from self-government. What better way, then, is there to show your fidelity to that spirit than to work, as Alinsky did, to “form a more perfect union”?
By: Andy Horowitz, The Atlantic, January 27, 2012