December 20, 2015 § 1 Comment
My Misinformed Fear and Anger
In the past I have often expressed my frustration at the apparent domination of our political system by a dwindling number of wealthy individuals. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision granting constitutional protection to unlimited campaign contributions enabled that process.
I recently learned that a second set of oligarchs, more powerful than the billionaires who evoked my fears, have been stifling our democracy far more effectively than the billionaires. And they have been doing it so cleverly that our vaunted First Amendment protected press failed to expose their mischief
Our democracy has not become dysfunctional merely because political candidates, especially “down ballot” candidates in congressional and state and local races, are dependent on the approval of a handful of rich donors. No. The true reason our democratic government no longer works is much simpler and more sinister.
The Majority of the Majority
I subscribe to a monthly newsletter edited by Lou Dubose, The Washington Spectator. Lou has been a careful, honest and avid observer of our political system for several decades. He makes no apology for his liberal beliefs, but his reporting is meticulously accurate. He expresses opinions, but he reports facts.
In the latest issue of the Spectator, Lou exposes the way about twenty-five extreme right-wing Republican members of the House of Representatives exercise veto power over all congressional legislation. Here’s how they do it.
Denny Hastert – The Father of Legislative Chaos
Denny Hastert was Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2007. From modest beginnings in Illinois, he rose from school teacher, wrestling coach, and scout master to a term or two in the Illinois Legislature followed by several terms as a Congressman before becoming Speaker.
He was a multimillionaire when he retired from the House to become a lobbyist. He was indicted for federal bank fraud and pled guilty based on a plea agreement. His offense consisted of making a series of cash withdrawals from a bank account in amounts slightly less than $10,000, an obvious attempt to avoid the necessity of reporting the reason for them, required for withdrawals for $10,000 or more.
His reticence to report the withdrawals became obvious when it was disclosed that he was paying blackmail money to a person who threatened to expose Hastert’s sexual abuse of young boys when he was a school teacher in Illinois and on other occasions. He was never prosecuted for those offenses because, when they were discovered, limitations barred prosecutions.
His legacy of ruinous governmental policy has long outlived and survived the disgrace of his private life in the form of a toxic corruption of democratic government known as the “Hastert Rule”.
The Hastert Rule
Like many of you, I have often seen references to the “Hastert Rule”. It is usually described as a requirement that, in order for a bill to be placed on the agenda for action in the House of Representatives, it must be supported by a “majority of the majority”.
Now, at this point, I must confess that, despite having made my living writing and speaking the English language, I misunderstood that phrase. I thought it meant that at least half plus one of the members of the majority political party represented in the House had to support a bill.
Lou Dubose explained to me in his Spectator article: The “Hastert Rule” means that a majority of the entire House of Representatives must be composed of members of the political party that comprises a majority of the House of Representatives before a bill can be voted on. I know this sounds like Bill Clinton’s exposition on the word “is”, but stay with me. This is important.
In the phrase “majority of the majority”, the word “of” means “composed of”. It does not mean that a bill must have the support of a majority “of” the majority party members. It means that the majority party members must at least equal a majority “of”the entire membership of the House of Representatives.
This is like a fourth grade “story problem” in math. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. So, to pass, a bill must have at least 218 votes (1/2+1). So, to satisfy the Hastert Rule, at least 218 Republicans must support the bill. The present House is composed of 246 Republicans and 188 Democrats. So, the Hastert Rule requires that at least 218 of those 246 Republicans support a bill in order for the House to get a chance to vote on it.
And, boys and girls, that means that 39 Republicans decide whether the United States Congress can enact any law. And – wait for it! The Republican members of the House have figured this out. So, they have created a “Freedom Caucus” composed of a sometimes fluctuating group of rightwing ideologues. It doesn’t matter what the Senate , the President, a majority of the American people, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives decides about American government policy. If it doesn’t suit this little “Freedom Caucus”, it goes nowhere.
Once upon a time there was a sexual predator named Denny Hastert. He got himself chosen to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He and his cronies were unhappy because, in order to impose their rightwing ideology, they had to negotiate and compromise with elected officials that did not agree with all of their ideas. In other words, they found democracy to be too messy and frustrating. So, they devised a way to convert it into an oligarchy. And, most satisfying of all, their design chose themselves as the oligarchs! Now that was really exhilarating.
They established the “Hastert Rule”. It rendered the Democrats in the House absolutely impotent. It also enabled the Republican Party to ignore the power of the presidency. Sure, President Obama could make speeches and Senators could fulminate about the “do nothing Congress” but the members of the “Freedom Caucus” come from districts carefully created to be safe havens for the privileged class who fully approve of the policies of the “Freedom Caucus”.
These oligarchs flexed their muscles during the past three or four years when pitiful John Boehner flailed around trying to pacify them without looking like a puppet or a punching bag. He finally surrendered and not only resigned as Speaker, he resigned from his seat in the House. Now Paul Ryan has taken his place. It remains to be seen how he will fare as lion tamer. I would not make any large bet on his success unless he embraces the Freedom Caucus’s agenda.