Democracy is just SO inconvenient sometimes…
Last week, the Michigan House Financial Liability Reform Committee me to discuss a bill calling for a federal Constitutional Convention to take up the issue of a federal balanced budget. 20 states have already done so; 34 are required. Whether or not a Constitutional Convention is a good idea is a matter of debate. Among most progressive, the idiocy of requiring a federal balanced budget is not. As State House Rep. Jeff Irwin put it to me, “This balanced budget amendment, in seeking to avoid some future economic calamity, is guaranteeing economic calamity in the short term. If enacted, a balanced budget amendment would ensure that future recessions become depressions and it would eviscerate our capacity to make investments in our future. Could the Federal Highway system have been built under this policy? How about the sewer and other public works projects of the last century that formed the basis for our economic prosperity? Budget constraints by Congress would be desirable over time, but this proposal is simply a political gimmick from the right wing.”
The argument that “Americans have to make and keep a budget, so should the federal government” absurdly overlooks concepts like mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, and revolving lines of credit.
FUN FACT: 42% of Michigan’s state budget is dependent upon federal dollars. If the federal balanced budget were put in place today, we’d lose a third of that. We’d have a self-inflicted 14% budget cut with nothing to replace it. Those are nice roads and bridges. Be a shame if something happened to them.
During the committee discussion last week, Democrats introduced 13 amendments to the Republican bill. House rules stipulate that amendments made in committee receive a vote. However, using rule known as Joint Rule 13, committee chair Earl Poleski ruled that all but two were not “germane” to the bill. What were the amendments? Democrats wanted to add that the Constitutional Convention include a number of additional topics ranging from campaign finance reform to protecting Social Security and restricting the use of eminent domain. According to Irwin, “the Chair ruled these amendments out of order; but largely refused to explain why. He pointed to Rule 13 of the Joint House/Senate rules – which isn’t on point – and refused to explain why he was deviating from common practice to broom away substantive amendments.”
In essence, Poleski was saying that rules prohibit amendments to bills that amend the state Constitution. This bill, of course, does not do that. So, either he doesn’t understand the rules he’s operating under or he’s deliberately ignoring them, both of which are outrageous in a modern democracy.
In the process of voting down the amendments, the Democrats would raise a point of order, the chair would allow them to challenge his decision that the amendments weren’t germane, and then put the question of whether his ruling was correct to a vote (not the amendment itself, mind you) and it would be shot down by a party line vote since Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 7-4 margin. When Democrats tried to argue their point, their microphones were turned off, preventing them from speaking.
I spoke to Rep. Irwin about what had happened since it seemed like a rather egregious abuse of power not to mention a violation of House rules and a abrogation of democracy. Irwin concurred.
“In our Michigan Constitution we have a few protections built in to protect the voices of the minority and to ensure that the public can hold elected officials responsible,” Irwin said. “The supermajority requirement for immediate effect and the ability for 1/5th of the members to demand a roll call vote on any question are two obvious examples of Constitutional provisions designed to reign in the tyranny of the majority (Art. 4, sec. 27 and Art. 4, sec. 18, respectively). Of course, as you know, the Michigan House of Representatives chooses to ignore those Constitutional protections and the courts have refused to require adherence to the Michigan Constitution.
“This is especially frustrating to me because when the majority refuses to count the votes and when the majority effectively casts my vote for me during immediate effect votes, they are robbing my constituents of their voting rights. The voters in House District 53 send me to Lansing as their Representative and when immediate effect is proposed, the Republicans replace the requirement of a supermajority with the power of the gavel. In other words, they control the administrative functions of the chamber and when the Clerk fraudulently reports that we supported immediate effect, then it doesn’t seem to matter how anybody actually voted on the proposal. If this seems incredible to you, you should come and watch it happen routinely in the Michigan House of Representatives.”
When one party controls the entire state government for this long, their power lust overwhelms them. This is particularly true for true ideologues and corporatists like those who control Michigan’s government. These lawmakers are not simply content to reshape our state into a theocratic corporatocracy. Now they wish to impose their harmful vision on the rest of the country as well. On their way to that end, all means are justified, even if it means ignoring rules, trampling the rights of the minority, and trampling democracy in the process. There is deep and rich irony here that’s overshadowed by the perilous threat to our country’s welfare.
[Jeff Irwin photo by Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]