3/1/2004

 

Legislature needs a democratic revolution

 

The recent punishment of two state legislators, one of them ours, by speaker of the house Flake is a prime example of one of the things about our government that most needs reforming. Whether it's a state legislature or the federal, one of the least democratic places in the government is where our laws are made.

 

The rules vary a little from one legislative body to another, but typically the majority leader gets to pick who's on what committee, who chairs a committee, what bills get heard, who gets what office space and support staff. The chairs of the individual committees play a similar role within their committees, deciding what bills get heard, which get to be voted on, and whether they can proceed to the full house. Even the minority party has a minority leader who plays a similar role for those in their party. These are little kingdoms and fiefdoms, right there in the heart of our supposedly democratic government.

 

And it doesn't matter which party is in control. When Bush Sr. was president, the Republicans in Congress apparently had the votes to move forward a balanced budget amendment. But at the time Congress was controlled by Democrats, who thought it was just an excuse to gut social programs, and so they wouldn't bring it to the floor for a vote. I don't care whether I agree with a bill or not, or whose bill it is; if a majority of our elected legislators want to pass it, it should pass. That's what we put them in there for. If it's a bad bill, opponents can always take up the fight again later to undo it.

 

"Good ol" Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina was notorious for holding up bills. He almost singlehandedly sabotaged much of Clinton's foreign policy because he was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and simply wouldn't bring bills he didn't like to a vote in "his" committee. And if bills don't make it out of committee, they don't get voted on by the body as a whole. He would generally hold the bills hostage, only trading their release for some other foreign policy program he wanted, or something for his state.

 

All of these rules are arbitrary. Any legislature could change their rules any time they chose. And they should. The idea that the duly elected legislator from our area should have his chance to vote on a bill tossed aside because some other legislator doesn't like the cut of his jib pretty much makes a mockery of democracy.

 

From time to time proposals are floated to reform the rules in the legislature. Next time they are, make your voice heard to support it. Who knows? Maybe Mr. Flake's crass move will spark one of those reform movements now.