The Shutdown and the Death of Democracy in the House

Posted on October 15, 2013

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© Josh Sager – October 2013

government-shutdown

The 2013 government shutdown represents a unique confluence of political and economic situations, and illustrates a great deal about modern American politics. A wide variety of factors are involved in the 2013 shutdown, ranging from the minutia of political posturing between parties in a two-party political system to the economic impacts of a shuttered federal government with the threat of default.

That said, of all the things illustrated by the 2013 shutdown, the most important one is likely the role of democracy in our political system. Or, more specifically, the shutdown’s demonstration of democracy’s advanced state of decay in modern American politics.

The 2013 government shutdown and debt limit fights were instigated when a contingent of intransigent and ideologically extreme Republicans decided to take the entire political process hostage in an attempt to repeal the president’s signature legislation—this tactic is irresponsible, unprecedented, and entirely unrepresentative of the views of the American people.

According to recent polling by ABC/Washington Post, the House GOP’s hostage-taking is disapproved of by 74% of the American people. This poll is not unique, as several other recent polls—including one which put Congressional approval at 5% and another that had 60% of Americans willing to fire the entire House—have come back with similar results.

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Despite the obvious will of the people—including a plurality of their own right-wing constituents—the House Republicans have sustained their shutdown and even threatened to make it infinitely worse by instigating an unprecedented default on the national debt.

Such a disregard for the American peoples’ views is only possible because these representatives have become detached from the normal strings of democratic accountability—in effect, they now feel free to pursue their personal and partisan goals, just as long as they placate a very small minority of their extremist supporters.

The specific conditions which cut the democratic strings of accountability include the toxic combination of gerrymandering and parliamentary tricks.

 

Partisan Gerrymandering

When the GOP rode the 2010 midterms into positions of power in both state and federal governments, they immediately began gerrymandering to sustain their power in future elections. These anti-democratic redistricting measures allowed the GOP to remain secure in their power, even in the face of backlash against their unpopular policies.

During the 2012 election, the Democrats received nearly 500,000 more votes than the GOP in Congressional races, yet this gerrymandering allowed the GOP to retain control over the House.

gerrymandering

Put plainly, the GOP which is currently using its control over the House to hold the entire country hostage is only able to do so because it rigged the vote in its favor. If the voting districts were not engineered by the GOP for their benefit, they wouldn’t even hold the House, never mind the ability to precipitate such a crisis.

Barring some incredibly controversial course of action (ex. destroying the world economy by crashing the debt ceiling), the GOP has an electoral advantage in House races that will last until the next redistricting—this gives the GOP control over the House when they did not get the votes to deserve it, and ensures that the right wing has disproportionate amounts of power.

Many Republican districts are so securely right wing that the only threat to an incumbent Republican is being challenged from the right by a Tea Partier. Because of this, there is no incentive for a Republican to moderate; rather, there is a very strong disincentive to do anything which could be seen as “dealing with the enemy” or as breaking with the right wing lockstep (either would give them the dreaded R.I.N.O label).

 

Parliamentary Tricks

In a little-known but extremely consequential move, the GOP changed the House parliamentary rules on the day before the crisis to prevent the House Democrats from forcing a vote. Through preventing anybody but the House Majority Leader (currently Eric Cantor) from forcing a concurrence vote on the Senate continuing resolution, the House GOP subverted democracy in the House itself.

Given recent statements, a majority of the House actually supports a clean continuing resolution to fund the government. If a clear CR went to a vote in the Congress, it would pass with every Democrat being joined by enough Republicans to make a majority. That said, such a vote will not occur because the power to bring the CR to a vote is now under the sole authority of the majority leader.

The fact that the GOP made this change right before they shut down the government indicates that they knew that their leverage could be taken away if democracy were allowed to take its course; as such, they made sure to prevent this democratic resolution to their manufactured crisis via changing the rules right before the game.

The current operating procedure in the House of Representatives is an example of a tyranny by a minority—the entirety of the House is being controlled by an extreme segment of the Republican Party that constitutes a minority of the institution.

 

Conclusion

We are faced with the worrying conclusion that a large portion of the modern American right has realized that they cannot win enough elections democratically, thus has decided to utilize anti-democratic measures in order to remain relevant.

Since the GOP cannot win enough seats through fair elections, they will manipulate voting districts in order to manipulate the election results. Even using this tactic, the GOP fringe lacks the power to win democratically in the House, thus they use parliamentary tricks to further distort democracy.

An extreme minority within a party which received a minority of the votes in Congressional races is imposing its will on the entire country—this is simply not how a democracy operates and we must move back towards a government which represents the people.

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If you belong to a party which is in the minority, you must argue your point better than the opposition and sway people to your side; what you cannot and should not be allowed to do is simply game the system so that you can impose your will over the opinions of the majority. The GOP must be stopped from continuing their tyranny of the minority and more democratically-minded individuals must be given back control over our legislature.