Sunday, October 13, 2013

Managing an Orderly Succession

The Constitution foresees the possibility of a President’s being unable to fulfil his duties (whether because ill, or dead, or sitting in Sing-Sing), and specifies his successor; and further deals with the case in which the Vice President should be similarly indisposed.  And a good thing, too, since much this scenario did in fact eventuate during the unsavory Nixon administration (before the shaming memory of which, Clio averts her gaze).   And although that foresightful document does not explicitly provide for the case that now confronts us, something analogous is afoot:  the Republicans in the House of Representatives have lost their reason.
As we argued earlier, it is time for that body to be declared legally incompetent.  And, as of yesterday, moves in this direction are afoot (Senate Leaders Take Reins on Shutdown Talks), with the (mostly) grown-ups in the Senate finally (belatedly) moving in to clean up the mess of spilled milk and broken crayons left in the soiled sandbox of the House.  Indignantly, some from the junior, or lower, body, have demanded that their betters and seniors should condescend to stand alongside the nursery miscreants, and (in their phrase)

“Grow a Backbone”

Now, to anyone who lived through the Nixon shambles, this phrase immediately calls to mind another, famous at the time:

Grow a Penis

which referred anagrammatically to Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s crude and nescient Veep, who was removed in tandem -- ostensibly for his sordid misdemeanors (which were real enough) but in actuality for his manifest unfitness to be President (a fact reportedly not lost on Nixon himself when he selected that portly nonentity as his back-up -- “Nixon’s insurance plan” against impeachment).

Ideally, the Congressmen would simply be dismissed, their offices left untenanted for a time, like the seats on the NLRB  kept vacant by the mulishness of Senate Republicans.  But out of charity (even to the least of God’s creatures) we might rather remove them to a sunny and brightly-painted Sheltered Workshop somewhere up in the western mountain meadows, where they can happily potter about and, I dunno, debate stuff, pass “laws” or something, and -- all passion spent -- docilely lie down on their blankies at nap-time.


The question of “Two-Tier Voting”

 The question then arises, how ever we came to such a pass.  And the first thing to realize is, these ills are not of recent date.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America for just shy of a year, 1831-2, and who found much to admire in our republic, noted with surprise  the low quality of the Congressmen:

Lorsque vous entrez dans la salle des représentants … vous vous sentez frappé de l’aspect vulgaire de cette grande assemblée. … Ce sont, pour la plupart, des avocats de village, des commerçants, ou même des hommes apparentant aux dernières classes.
-- De la Démocratie en Amérique (1835)

The more surprising to him, then, was the contrast with the vastly superior quality of the Senators:

A deux pas de là s’ouvre la salle du sénat, dont l’étroite enceinte renferme une grande partie des célébrités de l’Amérique. … Toutes les paroles qui s’échappent de cette assemblée  feraient honneur aux plus grands débats parlementaires d’Europe.

What could explain the disparity?

A contemporary American, puzzling, might think of the six-year term, which insulates the Senatorial incumbent against the swift-shifting winds of idle fancy;  and the statewide suffrage, so that the peculiarities of District 13, where everyone is everybody’s spouse and “cousin” (a category including sister and daughter, mayhap), get washed-out some in the statistical accumulation of the state as a whole.   Neither of these, however, suffice to explain the gap that yawned before Tocqueville, and which he explained quite otherwise:

Je ne vois qu’un seul fait qui l’explique : l’élection qui produit la chambre des représentants est directe;  celle dont le sénat émane  est soumise à deux degrés.

For, when the Republic was born, Senators were not elected directly by the sons of the soil, but by their legislative representatives in each state. 
Tocqueville emphasized that there was nothing undemocratic about this:  said representatives were not appointed by the Federal government, or the Supreme Court, or the Pope or what have you:  They were the freely chosen legislators of the people.   Yet somehow, this intermediate layer of filtering -- of refinement -- produced better result than the arithmetic sum of popular knee-jerks.   After all, the average voter had to go slop the hogs;  he didn’t have time to go working his way through The Wealth of Nations, whereas it was the job of elected solons  to dwell upon such things.

Tocqueville drew the necessary lesson:

Il est facile d’apercevoir dans l’avenir, un moment où les républiques américaines  seront forcées de multiplier les deux degrés dans leur système électoral,  sous peine de se perdre misérablement  parmi les écueils de la démocratie.

Famous last words!  So far from generalizing this successful experiment, the nation abolished it, by the Seventeenth Amendment (1913).


It was recently reported that, in response to a cockeyed Supreme Court ruling that illegal aliens could vote in Federal elections (why not penguins?  why not let the penguins vote!), certain states have introduced what the journalists called “two-tier” balloting, with state and local elections requiring proof of voter identity, whereas Federal elections will remain open to fraud:

This use of the term “two-tier”  is perhaps something of a misnomer,  however, as it principally refers to structured and generally sequentially ordered subdivisions of a unity:  apprenticeship vs. journeyman status;  primary vs. general-election balloting.  Here, rather, the reference is simply to independent non-intersecting areas of elections, which have always existed and whose separateness did not spring into being with the Supreme Court ruling or the local response thereto.   The two-tier or two-stage system of pre-1913 Senatorial elections is much more substantial.


The bicameral legislature is a highly non-obvious invention.   And it pains us to report, that the public schools I attended -- elementary, junior high, and senior high -- tasked  to educate us in the practices and logic of the democratic republic or republican democracy, here signally failed.   Having two different chambers was apparently just an oddity -- a bit of inexplicable Yankee tradition like Groundhog Day -- which led to duplication of effort and necessitated time-consuming Senate/House conferences to resolve the differences in their respective bills.   It seemed as arbitrary a dichotomy as the “shirts” and the “skins” as which we (just the lads, s’entend) were divided for scratch teams in sports.

One can only put forward, in the schools’ excuse, that the original sharp difference as conceived by the Founding Fathers, was blunted by the 17th Amendment.


In the astonishingly clear-sighted vision of the Founders (and here I’m not being just traditionalist or pious -- they really did a darned good job) these ultralocally-elected Congressmen, changed as frequently as socks, were to serve, not only to represent the people -- to serve as their representatives -- but to be -- statistically, sociologically -- representative of the people, in all their parti-colored and manic variety.   They were to serve as a sort of locally-penned, scientific stool-sample of what-all was going on in the hearts and minds back in the hills and hollers of an expanding nation that at first was mostly frontier (and without fiber-optic Internet service to bring the distant news to the Capital;  the Founders had to make do with dial-up).   And the Founders fully anticipated that that chamber would be a bubbling cauldron of emotions, fantasies, factions, conspiracy theories, quack nostrums, and wacky (and sometimes brilliant) proposals.   The Senatorial party, having coolly faced-down the Redcoats, were prepared to face even this.   

In the reigning metaphor of the day the Senate was to serve as “the saucer in which to cool the hot tea” that the House could be expected to serve up.  That imagery no longer works in our own latte-sipping era -- I’ve never actually seen anyone use a saucer in that fashion (though come to think of it, a scalding black veinte  really could use one).  


Having brought us to the brink, and now losing their nerve, Republicans are now trying to scoff the whole thing aside as a non-issue:

Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, played down the importance of this week’s deadline  and said the White House “is trying to scare the markets.”

The slightest acquaintance with the foreign press would suffice to disabuse him of that notion.   To quote simply the broadcast I happen to be listening to in the background at this very moment -- one very far indeed from White House control --  consider the (basically pro-Arab, and Islam-friendly) site, a joint French-Moroccan venture (and very professionally run),  which (by its writ) by no means focuses on America, but rather the francophone and arabophone pourtour of the Mediterranean -- the way they characterized l’enjeu this morning was:  Eviter un Armageddon économique pour toute la planète”.   Perhaps somewhat dramatically phrased, that, but the point is:   The whole world is watching, and taking this very seriously indeed.


For more from this pen, try these:

[Update 24 January 2015]  Precedents from European history, ca. 1900:

Parliamentary minorities now wielded a new weapon … : obstruction. … Here, the old idea that the rights of minorities must be protected  was extended into the absolute refusal to allow the expression of unwelcome opinions. … Open discussion was the chief pillar of parliamentarianism, but as soon as the chamber admitted biter enemies of the regime  as well as polite dissenters, parliamentary debates  degenerated into farce.  It had all started in the Mother of Parliaments, with Parnell and his Irishmen in the 1880s;   but in the Hungarian and Austrian parliaments, too, there were many who felt too strongly about their cause  to play the parliamentary game.
-- Jan Romein, The Watershed of Two Eras:  Europe in 1900 (1967, Eng. transl. 1978), p. 138


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