Congress is set this week to pass a horrendous tax bill that will give the rich and corporations hefty tax cuts, will increase the deficit by $1 trillion over 10 years, will leave 13 million people uninsured by eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and will force cuts in federal programs as revenues dry up. In terms of unfairness and reckless economic policy, it will rank among the worst legislation ever passed.
But this bill is a travesty not only for what’s in it, but for what happened around it on its way to becoming law. It is deeply unpopular legislation – American voters disapproved of the tax plan 53 to 29 in a recent Quinnipiac poll. Nonetheless it is being rammed through Congress on straight party line votes without public hearings and deliberation. Polarization has been eating away at the democratic process like an acid in recent years, but what is expected to happen this week in Washington, D.C., signals that the process is burned all the way through.
Respecting and following the democratic process isn’t a mere matter of civility. It’s crucial to the integrity and quality of legislation. Public hearings and legislative debate reveal flaws in a bill and build consensus for change. A lack of hearings and debate means acting without considering consequences and creates cynicism about the motivations behind the legislation.
The United States prides itself on being a nation of laws, but if it passes bad laws – laws without popular support or open deliberation and prone to unintended effects – what kind of nation is it? If the democratic process breaks down, is a democracy still functioning?
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Apparently not. Democrats have rightly questioned why there needs to be such a rush to pass a massive tax bill. Certainly the economy is not in need of stimulation. The reason is that the bill lacks support and the more it’s scrutinized the more the public will oppose it. So the process has been ignored in a headlong race to get the bill to President Trump’s desk before opposition builds.
Fast track bill
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic member of the Senate Budget Committee, said after the bill whipped through his committee on a party line vote with limited debate, no testimony from experts and no public hearings, “I thought, Mr. Chairman and colleagues, I had seen just about everything. But this committee has just completed a key discussion on the budget foundations for 10 trillion dollars of tax-policy changes in less time than it takes to wash a car.”
Frederick W. Mayer, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, says this flouting of legislative conventions to expedite the tax bill represents “a new low.” Mayer, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and a foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), said short-circuiting the process raises the risks of passing laws that contain errors and cause unintended effects.
“The reason why it often takes longer (to pass legislation) than people would like is that our system was designed to force compromise and to be deliberative,” he said. “When you cut corners on that, which is what’s happening now, you definitely make mistakes.” He added, “It’s pretty horrifying to witness what is going on.”
What makes the hijacking of democracy on Capitol Hill even more troubling is that it’s not confined to Congress. Republicans are using the same tactics in state legislatures where they have full control. They’re not only skipping legislative traditions and conventions, but by undermining the right to vote with voter ID laws and other election law changes and frustrating the popular will through gerrymandering.
North Carolina ignores process
North Carolina, of course, is one of the nation’s extreme cases. Republicans enjoy a super majority and have taken an imperial approach to lawmaking. Democratic legislators are ignored and the public is often shut out. Significant changes in law and policy are hidden in massive budget bills. Bills are gutted and filled with unrelated legislation late in the session. Special sessions are called without clarifying or limiting the agenda. Public comment on controversial legislation is sharply limited. More than 1,000 Moral Monday protesters were arrested inside the Legislative Building.
The reduction of democracy only has one cure – more democracy. People who want to be heard need to vote. That message is starting to get through as seen in the election results in Virginia and the special Senate election in Alabama.
Mayer notes voters are pushing back against gerrymandering and eventually will reclaim a true democratic process. He said, “The optimist in me thinks that having identified the problem to some extent we will find a way out of this.”
We can only hope. And vote.