Patriotic fanfare pervaded the 112th U.S. House of Representatives in 2011 at its opening session. Republican legislators demanded the Constitution be read in its entirety. Never before had this occurred when the House was in session.
Moreover, the Republican-dominated House required in writing constitutional justification for every submitted bill. The GOP demanded constitutional principles that insured fiscal restraint go in effect. Republicans desired that government adhere line-by-line to the Constitution. Such commitment would reduce spending, relax regulations on commerce and roll back debt incurred by social justice initiatives.
Did House Republicans politically grandstand? Or did they show deep commitment to principles embedded in our nation’s founding documents?
Judged by Republican recall efforts against four Colorado state legislators, the GOP’s aim to honor constitutional governing principles failed miserably.
Republican efforts to recall duly elected Colorado legislators functioned like a “direct democracy.” Miffed at proponents who passed sane gun registration laws, the GOP appealed to articles in Colorado law for recall of elected officials.
Such costly, time-consuming campaigns, however, defy the Constitution’s republican spirit. Constitutional law is based on citizens electing representatives rather than disgruntled voters conducting New England town meetings, which side step republican principles in favor of voters’ direct action.
The difference between the U.S. constitutional republic and a direct democracy is like two ships passing in the night — one in the Atlantic and the other in the Pacific.
In 2013, the Democratic-controlled Colorado General Assembly passed gun-control bills in response to the carnage in schools and a movie theater caused by gunmen. Republicans regarded these laws as infringing on their Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
If citizens differ with elected representatives on policy, then let them rally those of like-persuasion and at the next regular election vote their candidates into office.
Recall As Last Resort
Redressing grievances by recall should be used when other legal procedures run their course. Use it when a legislator shows incompetence or is malfeasant in duties. Recall wasn’t intended as battering ram opponents wield to rout officials from office.
When elected officials break the law, impeach them. When guilty of unethical conduct or derelict in duties, recall legislators. But when they differ with some constituents about the legal limit to the size of a rifle’s magazine clip, let us engage in debate and respect the calendar for regular elections.
Republicans used recall or its threat against these Democrat legislators: Reps. Mike McLachlan, of Durango, and Sens. Evie Hudak, of Westminster, Angela Giron, of Pueblo, and John Morse, of Colorado Springs. The GOP acted as if our government runs like a direct democracy rather than as a republic of elected representatives.
James Madison, architect of the Constitution, crafted a primer on the difference between a republic and a direct democracy. Madison feared a direct democracy because rowdy citizens practiced what John Adams called “mobocracy.” Once in power, such citizens often exploited recall efforts with a scorched-earth policy that took out legislators with whom they clashed.
Madison wanted citizens who argued for change to take deliberate action, obey orderly procedures, and respect checks and balances of governance by which a republic flourishes. He feared citizens who acted like vigilantes, acting on whim or caprice to evict public servants from elected seats.
Federalist No. 10
Writing a defense of constitutional principles in The Federalist No. 10, Madison stated: “A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from a pure democracy …. (A) great point of difference between a democracy and a republic (is) the delegation of the government, in the latter to a small number of citizens elected by the rest.” Madison reiterated his distinction between “a republic and a democracy” in The Federalist No. 14 and also criticized the ancient Greek type of pure democracy in No. 63.
Who taught Madison to favor a republic over a direct democracy?
Rev. John Witherspoon, the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, influenced Madison. He served as president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and rejected religious power at the top through a bishop and power at the bottom through local congregations. Witherspoon noted the early church in which “elders were appointed in every church” (Acts 14:23). He advocated churches governed by representatives elected by elders. Madison used this model to shape the constitutional U.S. republic.
Let’s support citizens who build the country on principles of a republic. Republicans have drifted into dangerous waters. They use recall as a tool that favors a direct democracy. The GOP needs to reclaim constitutional moorings.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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