Spreading Democracy

It's a sad state of affairs when a lawmaker has to introduce a bill prohibiting other lawmakers from hacking into one another's computer files, bribing other members on the House floor, or calling the Capitol police to have another member removed from a room. But that's exactly what legislation being introduced this week by Rep. Carolyn Maloney does.

While each of these examples would seem to violate standards of common decency, they're all things Republicans have done since taking control of the House in 1995. Maloney's bill -- called the Restoring Democracy to the U.S. Congress Act of 2004 -- isn't the only one. Rep. Martin Meehan is proposing legislation -- the Democracy in Congress Act of 2004 -- to allow votes to stay open for a maximum of 30 minutes. (Maloney's bill calls for a 17-minute time limit; the only restriction now is that votes are open for a minimum of 15 minutes.) Republicans have abused this rule repeatedly, most recently on July 8, when they held open a vote for 38 minutes. That was enough time for GOP leaders to convince nine lawmakers to withdraw their support for the bipartisan amendment limiting Patriot Act invasions of Americans' reading habits, ensuring its defeat even as Democrats chanted, “Shame, shame, shame.”

As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said after the vote, House Republican leaders showed “they will stop at virtually nothing to win a vote.” Divisions within the GOP forced the “abuse of power” because leaders have trouble winning a vote on its own merits.

“[E]ven many Republicans recognize that the leadership more often than not takes an extreme view,” Hoyer noted.

The length of votes on the House floor isn't the only problem, Meehan said on July 14. More than 30 bills have been sent to the House floor under rules that strip Democrats of the power to offer amendments on the floor. Some members are forced to vote on legislation they haven't had a chance to read because it's printed shortly before the vote. “Haste and secrecy have overtaken deliberation and openness,” Meehan said.

Maloney and Meehan's bills, while well-intentioned, have little chance of passing. The limited time left on the legislative calendar and the fact that Republicans, as the majority party, aren't eager to give up power ensure that the bills won't become law this year. But they send an important message to Republicans: Democrats are tired of being shut out of the legislative process.

It's a frustration that Republicans know well. When they were in the minority, especially in the early 1990s, GOP legislators complained that Democrats held open votes for longer than 15 minutes. Democrats counter that when they were in charge, the longer votes allowed more members to get to the floor and weren't kept open in an effort to change the outcome. There's another key difference, too. When Democrats held votes open, it was often for a few extra minutes -- not for almost three hours, the length of time the Medicare vote lasted in the fall.

The reality is that, until Democrats regain the majority, there's not much they can do besides introducing legislation and hoping to spark public debate. If change comes, it will be from moderates in the Republican Party who demand that their leaders treat Democrats fairly. It's in the moderates' best interest that House procedures aren't discarded at whim; fair rules allow moderates to vote their conscience and the conscience of their constituents. Allowing votes to happen in the time allotted and Democrats to offer amendments on the floor might be to the Republican Party's advantage, too: They could actually reflect public opinion rather than govern based on a conservative agenda the voters don't support. But don't look for moderates to revolt in an election year, when GOP leaders can distribute or withhold money and resources that affect election outcomes.

As Maloney wrote in a “dear colleague” letter urging other lawmakers to support her bill, “we are increasingly becoming a model of how not to run a democracy.” At a time when the president and his party seem so intent on spreading democracy throughout the world -- using whatever means or justification it can -- voters here should demand that GOP leaders practice what they preach. Otherwise, what lesson are we teaching?

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.