Commentary: The process is our protection
Often it appears that people equate the Constitution with the right to bear arms, the Second Amendment. There is a lot more to the Constitution than that.
Some of the most important parts of the Constitution explain the separation of powers between the president, the Congress and the Supreme Court. Only the Congress can raise and spend money. The president can request or recommend spending money but only the Congress can do it. The president proposes; the Congress diposes.
The Supreme Court is independent. The president recommends to Congress that it advise and consent to the appointment of a judge. Once approved that judge is independent and serves for life. The court interprets the actions of the political branches.
Members of the Senate serve six-year terms. The Senate, like a saucer, can cool the actions of the House where temporary passions can rule the day.
When a bill is proposed it is referred to a committee and a subcommittee where its nature and merits are to be discussed. If, based on public hearings, the committee finds merit in the bill, it moves it to a mark-up session where members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats, can offer amendments. The amendment process gives all members of the committee their day in court.
When a bill clears committee, it is reported to the floor of the respective houses. The House Rules Committee determines the rules under which a measure will be taken to the House floor. In the Senate that role falls to the Senate majority leader in consultation with the minority leader.
The Senate has no rules committee. The majority leader sets the conditions under which a measure will be considered. The Senate functions most of the time under unanimous consent. Absent the ability to achieve unanimous consent, the work of the Senate will be very slow indeed.
The next step in the process is conference committee. It has become an endangered species. If the measures approved by the House and Senate have important differences, they are worked out in this committee. A conference committee is composed of Republicans and Democrats who represent the views of their respective bodies.
Conference committees went the way of the dodo bird when the Republican strategist Frank Luntz sold House Republicans on the idea of treating their Democratic colleagues as crooks and traitors rather than the political opposition. A senator with a different point of view was now my enemy and not my colleague. This poisoned the waters. It meant that conference committees were deemed unnecessary; the majority party would impose its decisions on the minority.
The more hands that touch a legislative proposal, the stronger and better it will end up being. The process lends itself to achieving a broad consensus on legislation. Such legislation seeks the greatest good for the greatest number.
That’s all very nice. But where are we today?
There are things so important that a super-majority is required to approve them. The approval of lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court was an example until Justice Gorsuch was deemed to require a simple majority.
The crafting of the health care bill behind closed doors in the Senate is the antithesis of how a bill is supposed to become a law. Sen. McConnell’s approach is that the fewer hands that touch this bill the better. Madison would be appalled.
Legislation that stands the test of time and provides sustained benefits to the people of the United States requires the buy-in of a broad consensus of Republicans and Democrats. Legislation passed on a party-line basis will last only as long as the party in power stays in power. In 1935, Social Security had substantial Republican support as did Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
James Madison put it well when he said, “If men were angels, there would be no need for government.” Madison was creating a process with checks and balances that would protect us against rash decisions and unbridled ambition. For good or ill, our processes of government do not lend themselves to quick decisions. Our system was not designed to be efficient but stable.
The Constitution and the legislative process conceived by its Framers are our best defense against fools and tyrants.
Bipartisanship allows our government to work well; its absence results in it not working at all.
Front Royal resident Tom Howarth is a former legislative assistant to Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J.