Blue Louisa: A blog Covering Central Virginia & national politics from a progressive perspective
This is a special time of the year when people sit down and reflect on days gone past, perhaps creating a mental list of best movies, exciting sports events, or other milestones.
Some political pundits will sit back and wonder how we arrived at this point. As the engraving at the National Archives building in Washington suggests, “What is Past is Prologue.”
If you want to ask why the federal government doesn’t appear to work, the place to start would be the mid-1990s when the Republican Party held majorities in the House and Senate. One of the important Republican operating principles in the House of Representatives at the time was the Hastert Rule. This informal principle was used to limit the power of the minority party to bring bills up for a vote in the House.
Under this doctrine, the House speaker would not allow a floor vote unless a majority of the majority party supported the bill. By keeping the minority party from passing bills with the assistance of a minority of majority party members, bipartisanship was pushed into a back corner.
Today’s House is trying to resurrect bipartisanship, and has passed 275 bipartisan bills, which await Senate action.
But under Speaker Dennis Hastert, bipartisanship was rare. In 2003, Hastert refused to allow a vote on a campaign-finance law that had bipartisan, but not majority Republican, support. In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill, but it wasn’t brought to the House floor. Of course, by 2010 the Freedom Caucus had appeared in House Republican ranks; it took advantage of the Hastert Rule to slow legislation and even shut down the government.
From time to time, bipartisan bills that made people whole or protected society did overwhelm the Hastert Rule. In January 2013, Speaker John Boehner allowed a vote on aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. The bill passed with 21 percent of the Republican caucus approving.
Bravely, in February 2013, Boehner brought an extension of the Violence Against Women Act to the floor that he knew did not have the support of a majority of Republicans. The bill passed, with a few Republican votes, but has expired under subsequent Republican majorities.
High on our list of big moments in contemporary American political history has to be the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010. While wealthy donors, corporations, and special-interest groups have long had an outsized influence in U.S. elections, that sway was dramatically expanded after the Koch Brothers pushed this case to the high court.
Perhaps the most significant outcomes of Citizens United have been the creation of super PACs. At today’s level of wealth inequality, these super PACs fuel a growing sense that our democracy primarily serves the interests of the wealthy few, and that the vast majority of citizens have no voice.
Take this year’s election in Virginia’s 30th House District, of which Culpeper County is a part. What did Chicago billionaire Richard Uihlein, dumping millions into Libertarian campaigns, think he was buying when he gave Nick Freitas a half a million dollars? In fact, only 2.5 percent of Freitas’ campaign was funded by local sources, according to VPAP.org. He is a creature of out-of-state interests. That used to be called carpetbagging.
The larger point is that at a time when people are complaining about the U.S. government, it is easy to see why the public feels shortchanged. The Hastert Rule and Citizens United set the stage for the current administration’s warping of the U.S. Constitution’s explicit balance of powers among our three branches of government.
Now, there is something to think about for the new year.
Editor’s Note: this originally appeared in the Culpeper Star Exponent and has been re-posted here with the author’s permission.
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