In a piece for The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner backs up a lot of what I said Republicans were planning in my Cult of Personality series. He even agrees with the reasons and goals I suggested, though he says it a lot better. He doesn’t say anything about how important it is for the Republicans to tie their effort to control the country to a dominant political personality, but the rest of his analysis is frightening enough.
Today the electorate remains closely divided, and actually prefers more Democratic policy positions than Republican ones. Yet the drift toward an engineered one-party Republican state has aroused little press scrutiny or widespread popular protest.We are at risk of becoming an autocracy in three key respects. First, Republican parliamentary gimmickry has emasculated legislative opposition in the House of Representatives (the Senate has other problems). House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas has both intimidated moderate Republicans and reduced the minority party to window dressing, rather like the token opposition parties in Mexico during the six-decade dominance of the PRI.
Second, electoral rules have been rigged to make it increasingly difficult for the incumbent party to be ejected by the voters, absent a Depression-scale disaster, Watergate-class scandal or Teddy Roosevelt-style ruling party split. After two decades of bipartisan collusion in the creation of safe House seats, there are now perhaps just 25 truly contestable House seats in any given election year (and that’s before the recent Republican super gerrymandering). What once was a slender and precarious majority — 229 Republicans to 205 Democrats (including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats) — now looks like a Republican lock. In the Senate, the dynamics are different but equally daunting for Democrats. As the Florida debacle of 2000 showed, the Republicans are also able to hold down the number of opposition votes, with complicity from Republican courts. Reform legislation, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), may actually facilitate Republican intimidation of minority voters and reduce Democratic turnout. And the latest money-and-politics regime, nominally a reform, may give the right more of a financial advantage than ever.
Third, the federal courts, which have slowed some executive-branch efforts to destroy liberties, will be a complete rubber stamp if the right wins one more presidential election.
Taken together, these several forces could well enable the Republicans to become the permanent party of autocratic government for at least a generation. (emphasis added)
The third leg–controlling the judiciary–is the most problematic for the Publicans at this point. As I have pointed out on this site, an otherwise way-too-often spineless Democratic minority has been doing journeyman work in delaying, if not stopping, the Publican Congress from filling the Federal bench with whacko ultraconservative judges who can be counted on to back radical Publican policies in their courts–an absolute necessity if the take-over Kuttner–and I–foresee is going to happen peacefully. Just yesterday, before flying to Georgia to “honor” MLK by having his picture taken laying a wreath on King’s tomb, Junior used a recess apointment to make Charles Pickering, an open racist, a Federal judge. He had to use the recess appointment because thje Democrats had succesfully blocked Pickering’s nomination in the House, and had promised a filibuster in the Senate if his name came up.
The recall in California, the naked power grabs through unethical if nor illegal gerrymandering in Colorado and Texas, and what Kuttner rightly calls the “reduc[tion of] the minority party to window dressing” in the Congress are all parts of a plan hatched in conservative think tanks starting in the late 70’s for Publicans to take control of all the political machinery of the country in order to force through their agenda against the wishes of the population, who they know don’t agree with them in any great numbers.
But they may have overplayed their hand. As I pointed out in an earlier post, Solicitor General Ted Olson’s brief to the SCOTUS that it had no right to decide an issue of law (the legality of the Gitmo imprisonments) seemed destined to piss off the very judges whose legal sleight-of-hand made Junior President in the first place. A couple of weeks ago, the SCOTUS agreed to hear two more cases dealing with the lack of legal representation allowed to the inmates at Gitmo, this in the face of more strenuous objections from the Admin and the SG that they had no right to do so. I don’t think we’ve reached the point where the Admin and the SCOTUS are deadly enemies, but they are clearly no longer the bosom buddies they were 3 years ago. If the Democrats can continue to waylay Publican plans to invade the Federal judiciary and pack the Federal courts with mindless right-wing puppets like Pickering, democracy in America still has a chance to survive their onslaught.
Read the rest of Kuttner’s article. He details the tricks and parliamentary tactics DeLay uses to maintain what Kuttner calls his “dictatorship”–
Extreme Centralization. The power to write legislation has been centralized in the House Republican leadership. Concretely, that means DeLay and House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s chief of staff, Scott Palmer, working with the House Committee on Rules. (Hastert is seen in some quarters as a figurehead, but his man Palmer is as powerful as DeLay.) Drastic revisions to bills approved by committee are characteristically added by the leadership, often late in the evening. Under the House rules, 48 hours are supposed to elapse before floor action. But in 2003, the leadership, 57 percent of the time, wrote rules declaring bills to be “emergency” measures, allowing then to be considered with as little as 30 minutes notice. On several measures, members literally did not know what they were voting for.Sorry, No Amendments. DeLay has used the rules process both to write new legislation that circumvents the hearing process and to all but eliminate floor amendments for Republicans and Democrats alike. The Rules Committee, controlled by the Republican leadership, writes a rule specifying the terms of debate for every bill that reaches the House floor. When Democrats controlled the House, Republicans complained bitterly when the occasional bill did not allow for open floor amendments. In 1995, Republicans pledged reform. Gerald Solomon, the new Republican chairman of the committee, explicitly promised that at least 70 percent of bills would come to the floor with rules permitting amendments. Instead, the proportion of bills prohibiting amendments has steadily increased, from 56 percent during the 104th Congress (1995-97) to 76 percent in 2003. This comparison actually understates the shift, because virtually all major bills now come to the floor with rules prohibiting amendments.
One-Party Conferences. The Senate still allows floor amendments, but Senate-passed bills must go to conference with the House. Democratic House and Senate conferees are increasingly barred from attending conference committees, unless they are known turncoats. On the Medicare bill, liberal Democratic Senate conferees Tom Daschle and Jay Rockefeller were excluded. The more malleable Democrats John Breaux and Max Baucus, however, were allowed in. [See Matthew Yglesias, “Bad Max,” page 11.] All four House Democratic conferees were excluded. Republican House and Senate conferees work out their intraparty differences, work their respective caucuses and send the (nonamendable) bill back to each house for a quick up-or-down vote. On the Medicare bill, members had one day to study a measure of more than 1,000 pages, much of it written from scratch in conference.
Legislation Without Hearings. Before the DeLay revolution, drafting new legislation in conference committee was almost unknown. But under DeLay, major provisions of the Medicare bill sprang fully grown from a conference committee. Republicans got a conference to include a weakened media-concentration standard that had been explicitly voted down by each house separately. Though both chambers had voted to block an administration measure watering down overtime-pay protections for workers, the provision was tacked onto a must-pass bill in conference. The official summary of House procedures, written by the (Republican-appointed) House parliamentarian and updated in June 2003, notes: “The House conferees are strictly limited in their consideration to matters in disagreement between the two Houses. Consequently, they may not strike out or amend any portion of the bill that was not amended by the other House. Furthermore, they may not insert new matter that is not germane to or that is beyond the scope of the differences between the two Houses.” Like the rights guaranteed in the Soviet constitution, these rules are routinely waived.
–the effort of the Publicans to produce a “permanent legislative majority”–
Here are the numbers: With 229 Republicans and 205 Democrats (counting Sanders), it would take a net Democratic pickup of just 13 seats (that’s 13 Democratic gains equaling 13 Republican losses for a net swing of 26 seats) for the House to change control. Historically, that’s a small swing. In the nine elections between 1968 and 1984, the median swing was 42 seats. In the nine elections since 1986, the opposition party enjoyed a swing of 26 or more only once (the Gingrich landslide of 1994), and the median swing was just 10 seats. So normally the current Republican majority would be vulnerable to a below-average election-year swing. Today, however, with only about 25 effectively contestable seats, Democrats would have to win about three-quarters of the contestable races to take control, i.e., 19 Democratic wins to just six Republican wins, which in turn would require a tidal shift of public opinion.All told, there are as many as 60 swing seats. But many potentially competitive seats become contestable only after the current incumbent retires or dies. Conversely, swing seats often become safe seats once an incumbent is re-elected and entrenched. Because not all incumbents retire at once, at any given time the number of effective contestable seats does not exceed about 25.
Note also the interplay between the legislative dictatorship and the dwindling number of swing districts. In previous eras, a majority leader with a margin of just 26 seats would have to carefully broker compromises both with his own moderates and with the opposition party. But the DeLay dictatorship and the ever fewer swing districts have combined to produce the opposite result. Individual legislators with safe seats needn’t worry about swing voters, and DeLay needn’t worry about losing swing districts because so few are left. Accordingly, the congressional Republican Party has become more militantly conservative. Like Bush, who also had no real mandate for radical change, DeLay is governing as if his party had won by a landslide. The country may be narrowly divided, but precious few citizens can make their votes for Congress count. A slender majority, defying gravity (and democracy), is producing not moderation but a shift to the extremes.
–the potential abuse of electronic voting machines–
In the aftermath of the Republican theft of Florida’s electoral votes and the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. Many states are using HAVA funds to shift from now-prohibited punch cards or old-fashioned voting machine systems to ATM-type computer terminals. However, the three biggest makers of such computerized voting systems have financial ties to the Republican Party, and there is already evidence that the biggest manufacturer, Diebold, has had trouble designing tamper-proof systems. Some Democrats, led by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, have proposed that all such machines be backed up by “verifiable paper trails,” but this suggestion has gotten almost no Republican support. Moreover, millions of the poorest Americans have no experience with ATMs, and could well be deterred from voting.A second potential for mischief is the provision put into HAVA, at Republican insistence, requiring voters who register by mail to show a government ID at the polls. This sounds innocent enough. Republicans, however, have a long and sordid history of “ballot security” programs intended to intimidate minority voters by threatening them with criminal prosecution if their papers are not technically in order. Chief Justice William Rehnquist got his political start running a ballot-security program for the Republicans in the 1962 elections in Arizona. Many civil-rights groups see the new federal ID provision of HAVA as an invitation to more such harassment. The Department of Justice’s rights division was once a bulwark against these tactics, but that division currently reports to an attorney general named John Ashcroft.
–and the all-out assault intended to produce “rubber stamp courts”.
The most predictable public-policy result of extended one-party rule would be the completion of the Bush/radical-right project: the dismantling of social investment, regulation, progressive taxation, separation of church and state, racial justice and trade unionism. The administration’s opportunistic version of federalism would continue to preempt the ability of states and localities to enact progressive policies of their own.Even more insidiously, the radical right would likely use its wall-to-wall control of government to reduce liberties, narrow electoral democracy and thereby minimize the risk that it would ever lose power. Republican one-party rule would also strategically target progressive habitats, changing laws that currently tolerate or incubate oases of progressive political power and build liberal coalitions, such as the labor movement, universal social insurance, and an effective and valued public sector.
Do yourself a favor and read the whoile thing. Email it to your friends. Quote it to your enemies. People need to know what’s going on before it’s too late–and if Junior wins a second term, it almost certainly will be. This isn’t conspiracy theory, it’s conspiracy fact.