Sunday, August 17, 2008


A Modest Proposal deems its proposal modest: although it is unquestionably important, it should have minimal effect on American political life. The proposal is modest because it only seeks a few good souls to take up the challenge. Just a few such nonpartisans can be an enormous force for good in the Congressional culture. It is quality and character, not numbers, that are wanted.

By the same modest token, a small number of nonpartisan Senators and Representatives will pose no significant threat to the bi-partisan politics of Congress or the nation. So long as Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides that to win the presidency outright in the Electoral College (and avoid election by the House of Representatives) a candidate must win a majority of the electoral votes, and so long as most states award all their electoral votes to the winner of their popular votes, the politics of the United States will be dominated by the two major parties. As the noted British scholar of those politics, Denis W. Brogan, has written: “The chief task of the national parties is to induce the heterogeneous mass of the American people to act as two units once every four years for the object of electing a President.”

Each major “national party” is headed by a group of leaders in Washington, a National Committee and staffers, presiding over an aggregate of state and local party organizations. As these latter are peopled by leaders, organizers and workers in direct touch with the voters, virtually all politics from top to bottom is two-party politics. Both houses of Congress are organized and operated as two-party bodies, and the occasional third-party or independent newcomer must adjust to, and learn to live with, and within, that two-party setup. A few nonpartisan Senators or Representatives are hardly likely to threaten this enduring system.
They will, however, bring into the midst of that partisan culture their independent minds, not beholden to a party organization and thus free of party discipline. Free, also, of moral – or immoral – obligation to large contributors to their party coffers. They will be unconstrained by the power of party leaders to reward compliance or punish rebellion.

In a kind of perverse way, Senator Wayne Morse underscored the two-party organization of Congress by challenging it directly. Having been re-elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1950, he decided to leave the party in mid-term, in 1952, and become an Independent. At the opening session of the new Congress, the story goes, he appeared in the Senate chamber with a folding chair which, to the consternation of his colleagues, he either plunked down in the center aisle, or threatened to do so. His colleagues persuaded him to give up that wild idea and to take his old seat on the Republican side. But Morse was not through tormenting them. He told the Republican leaders that as an “Independent Party” – albeit a one-man party – he was entitled to assign himself to the standing committees of his choice. This sent the Senate into a tizzy. Traditionally, the leaders of the majority and minority parties assign senators of their party to standing committees, a powerful privilege, as assignment to a prestigious committee, such as Foreign Affairs or Judiciary, is highly prized. Traditionally, this was the sole route to a committee assignment, and the Senate leaders rose to the challenge. There was a sharp and prolonged debate, during which Senator Walter F. George of Georgia deflected Morse’s demand by asserting that if it prevailed, the Senate “would then be inviting splinter parties in the United States, and coalitions between factions of both parties, and, in a very short period of time, we would have all the ills of the coalition governments which have afflicted practically all of Europe.” The Senate then voted overwhelmingly to reject Morse’s demand.

Despite the endurance of the two-party system, third parties large and small have perpetually challenged it, with some success in state and local elections, but no success at the presidential level, except for the Republican Party. In 1856, when the Democrats and Whigs were the major parties, the Republicans entered the lists as an anti-slavery third party, and lost; but the slavery issue split the Whig Party and wiped it out, the “pro” Whigs going go the Democrats and the “anti” Whigs to the Republicans. By 1860, the two-party system essentially was back, the Republicans, with Lincoln, defeating the Democrats, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Calls for amendment of our curious and idiosyncratic presidential electoral system are hardy perennials, as are proposals of methods for making the popular vote decisive without going the burdensome Constitutional amendment route. One such was an editorial in The New York Times on March 14, 2006 entitled “Drop Out of the College”. Such proposals are subject to the law of unintended consequences, may be unwise, and, in any event, are not likely to bring about change any time soon. Therefore, A Modest Proposal assumes continuation of the two-party system undisturbed, and proposes amelioration of some less felicitous aspects of its Congressional culture by the election of a few nonpartisans to that body.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Victor in the primary and then in the general election, what is a nonpartisan Republican or Democrat to do in Congress? Whether in House or Senate, the reception is likely to be cold and there will be very few of you, if any, beside yourself. You will receive your assignments to standing committees, where the real work of Congress is done, through your party caucus, and for a nonpartisan, let alone a freshman, they are likely to be unimportant. So you must make your impact outside committees. On occasion you may make an important statement in testifying before a committee, as Senator Burton K. Wheeler did in 1937 when testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Bolstered by a letter that he produced from Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and liberal Justice Louis D. Brandeis, he helped to derail FDR’s Supreme Court Packing Plan. You may not be welcome in your party’s caucus if party leaders deem you too thorny; they may expel and strip you of such significant committee assignments as you may have acquired. Party leaders have from time to time used these punishments against party rebels. There may, one may hope, come a time when your public status is such that party leaders have to treat you with respect, even as to your seniority, but that will depend importantly on the constancy of your constituents’ support. Each of the Part I insurgent quintet enjoyed such support campaign after campaign. Such respect, however, will not preclude party leadership from persistent efforts to unseat you in primaries, as many of the quintet could attest.

That said, you can nevertheless be a significant force for good in Congress. Sadly, much of that good will consist in thwarting bad. As Senator Wayne Morse put it: “A true liberal can’t limit himself to a few areas. He must be on guard everywhere, ready to pounce on evil wherever it raises its ugly head.”

The greatest positive impact that a nonpartisan can make is to choose one major problem area that Congress has not addressed adequately or in depth, if at all, and become expert in it, develop a reasonable position on it if it proves amenable to your doing so, and then become a vigorous advocate for that position – in speeches in and out of Congress, in releases to, interviews and appearances in the media – who should seize upon and publicize something likely to be controversial – but especially in direct approaches to the public, to build support and pressure on your colleagues that can lead to action. Indeed, it would be well if the nonpartisan were to reach that position before entering the primary, and make it a defining campaign plank there and in the general election.

Circumstances have at long last forced Congress to face up to some of these issues, which are now being actively debated by experienced advocates on all sides, issues such as energy policy and global warming; preemptive war, nation-building and the respective roles of commander-in-chief and Congress in ordering, controlling and financing combat; the integrity of civil liberties in the fight against terrorism; immigration policy. But there are other crucial issues aplenty for nonpartisans to take up “to provide for the general welfare”: national health care; education; fiscal responsibility; tax policy and the drift toward oligarchy; the role of money in politics; the role of the United States in the United Nations and in world affairs; transportation; the drug problem; globalization of trade, manufacturing, and labor; apportionment of Congressional districts – the list goes on and on.

The point is to concentrate on one issue at a time, not to spread efforts thinly over several. Following the example of Senator George W. Norris, you will need patience, learn to swallow disappointment, take support where you find it, form or join ad hoc caucuses in support, be prepared to compromise to form alliances and to hold them together.

Keep Churchill’s watchword before you: Never give up! It took Norris years and years to see his policy of public ownership of model hydroelectric power utilities enacted into law and for his Twentieth Amendment to be adopted.

A Modest Proposal has here been addressing people whom it urges to run as nonpartisans, but it is also aware that an occasional incumbent, already in Congress, may decide to embrace nonpartisanship openly for the future. In essence, that is what each of the Part I insurgent quintet did.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Seismic Pennsylvania Primary

On May 16, 2006 the registered party voters of Pennsylvania gave a dramatic demonstration of how the party primary enables them to give force to their displeasure, at the least, or anger, at the most, at the performance and culture of their legislators. The Republicans unseated State Senator Robert C. Jubilirer, the longest-serving president pro tempore in Pennsylvania history, and his Majority Leader David J. Brightbill, and 11 sitting members of the House of Representatives. The Democrats ousted four incumbent members of the House. It was, as the chastened Jubilirer said, “a dramatic earthquake.” The headline of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s story called it “a seismic shift.” The Inquirer asked, “What are the aftershocks?” and answered “Many surviving incumbents will have tough races in the general election, and the long-stalled legislative reform agenda might well be infused with new life.” Those angry registered party voters had a second shot at incumbents in the general election; independent voters, who had no vote in the party primaries, will had the one, underscoring Kent’s teaching.

The event which surely influenced this pervasive and perdurable anger actually occurred in July 2005. Both houses, after midnight and with virtually no debate, voted themselves – and judges – substantial pay-raises: they then made an end-run around a Constitutional prohibition postponing effectiveness until after the session, by voting themselves immediate unvouchered travel allowances in the amount of the raises. The voter outcry was instantaneous and furious. The lawmakers, taken aback, after much backing and filling, repealed the raises, but the damage had already been done. Some activists formed PACleanSweep to recruit candidates to challenge incumbents in both the Republican and Democratic 2006 primaries; seven that they backed were among the victors on May 16th. Those seven could well have been the nonpartisan Republican and nonpartisan Democrats that A Modest Proposal calls for. It appears, though, that most of the havoc was wreaked by party faithful.