Vail Valley Voices: Grading our fathers
Vail, CO Colorado
The past few months have been tumultuous from a political perspective. The benign response of Democrats to the economy and to the attendant rise in unemployment has resulted in a tremendous shift of power in Washington.
It should be noted that Democrats controlled the executive and legislative arms of our government with significant majorities during the past two years. And yet, their output prior to the lame duck session of Congress was limited to an unpopular health reform law that has had very little impact and financial reform that did not address the real causes of the economic crisis.
Understandably, many Americans are very disillusioned by the performance of our elected officials. The president’s ratings have dropped precipitously and Congress’ are at or near an all time low.
However, the naivety, incompetence and impotence of our leaders prior to the recent election are not attributable to the grand design of our founding fathers. They, for the most part, had it right.
Congressional elections every two years are mandated by the Constitution, giving the electorate sufficient time to judge the performance of every member of the House and one-third of the Senate. And, after the two-year period ending in November 2010, voters were ready for a change.
Democrats were hammered throughout Congress, effectively transferring significant power to the Republicans. But, the Democrats will retain the presidency and a majority in the Senate. So, how do Republicans wield so much influence, you ask?
The answer goes back to the original plan of our founding fathers. They knew that power corrupts, so they installed safeguards in the Constitution to protect America from being dominated by one political party. One of the most important of these safeguards is the filibuster in the Senate.
As you know, the House votes with a simple majority for most issues. And so, the party that has 50.1 percent controls this part of government. But, the Senate is much different.
Smaller states, back when the Constitution was written, were concerned that a government controlled by a simple majority would be disadvantageous to them. So, the founding fathers effectively gave any senator the power to bring the lawmaking process to a halt unless 60 percent of his or her colleagues vote to end the “filibuster.” Note: the specifics relating to the filibuster have changed slightly over the years, but the original intention continues.
The impact of this rule is significant if the majority party in the Senate has between 50 and 59 senators. This situation is best exemplified by the election of Sen. Scott Brown shortly before November to replace the seat vacated by the death of Ted Kennedy. His election changed the split in the Senate from 60-40 (a filibuster breaking majority) to 59-41 (a filibuster vulnerable majority). If all Republicans vote nay, the Democrats can’t pass any new legislation.
The founding fathers knew that legislators would need to compromise for our country to operate effectively. The Brown election made compromise critical for the Obama government.
The 2010 elections exacerbated the situation and Republicans will take control of the House and the split in the Senate will worsen for Democrats when the new session begins.
But, even more interesting is what has happened during the lame duck Congress. This is the time after an election, but before the swearing in of the new lawmakers. Usually, it’s a relatively quiet time as the losers pack up and the winners learn the lay of the land. Not this year, though!
The lame duck Congress was extraordinarily productive because President Obama knew he had to compromise, lest the country be subjected to higher tax rates for all Americans, a remnant of the Bush years. This event could have had a devastating effect given the fragility of our economy.
Even though, Democrats still control the presidency and both houses of Congress, they could not rectify the looming tax problem without the help, and votes, of Republicans thanks to Brown’s election earlier in 2010. The result was a huge compromise containing elements that made both parties unhappy. The latter is an aspect of any good compromise.
And now, during the lame duck session, Congress also eliminated the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy pertaining to gays in the military. It’s an inane policy that discriminates against a large group of Americans at the expense of our military.
So, how would you rate our founding fathers’ performance? I say A-plus, and it makes me proud to be an American.
Sal Bommarito is a novelist and frequent visitor to Vail over the past 20 years.
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