Making Power Permanent

Republications Shifting Institutional Rules in Their Favor

As Senators Carol Mosely Braun and Paul Wellstone courageously blocked the $16 billion recission bill scheduled to become law this week, official Washington made a belated effort to cover the immediate harm which such cutbacks will inflict on the poor and elderly. Yet the spectacle of serious advocacy on Capitol Hill for the disadvantaged may have distracted the press from the larger story behind conservatives' blitzkrieg attacks on American social programs. The Contract with America represents not merely a Republican effort to enact conservative ideology, but also a strategy to permanently entrench Republican majorities through a systematic effort to cripple political opposition.

Such an analysis inevitably elicits the shrill accusation of "sour grapes." Of course the winners in an election will pursue policies which advance their own interests and hurt those of the opposition. And the small-government, tax-cutting Republican neophytes would betray their supporters if they did any favors for the "welfare bureaucracy" so often excoriated in their campaign ads. Yet when conservatives seek to undercut the very means of political competition itself--to systematically cut off their ideological opponents from access to advocacy--there is good reason for alarm. Bewildered by attacks on all sides, American liberals need to apprehend the broader import of Republican efforts to entrench themselves in power.

Ever since the post-Watergate electoral debacle of 1974, conservatives have been nothing less than brilliant in their political mobilization tactics. Pioneering direct mail fundraising techniques in the early 1970s, they quickly amassed huge campaign war-chests over the past 20 years. When big business became alarmed at the array of labor and environmental regulations promulgated in the mid-'70s, Republicans found a traditional ally all the more willing to contribute. Young reactionaries who jumped on the bandwagon of the Reagan revolution subsequently invigorated the ranks of "movement conservatives."

Yet Democrats in Congress, themselves supported by a corrupt incumbent-protection system, managed to remain entrenched despite the onslaught. Alarmed by Bill Clinton's fluke victory in 1992, Republicans redoubled their organizing efforts. Richly rewarded in 1994, conservatives were elated after breaking the Demcorats' lock on the House of Representatives. And having finally broken into the citadel, the Republicans are now resorting to the old Nixon playbook to ensure that they never have to leave again.

Upon taking control of the House, Republicans immediately changed the rules of the body. They massively increased the power of Speaker Newt, ensuring that their ranks could move in lockstep for maximum political efficacy. Even ostensibly progressive reforms, such as rules requiring public committee hearings, have been used to subject delicate House negotiations to the capricious whims of authoritarian populism.


Having changed the nature of Congress, Republicans have now turned to efforts for permanent institutional change by proposing constitutional amendments. Both a term-limits amendment and a balanced-budget amendment look to be top priorities in the coming month. Thorough examination of each reveals their deleterious impact on political contestation of conservative initiatives.

Ironically entitled the "Citizens' Legislature Amendment," term limitation represents nothing less than an effort to systematically skew the membership of Congress toward traditional Republican constituencies. Harking back to the rhetoric of Jefferson and Madison, term-limiters romantically depict a Congress of non-professional yeoman legislators. Taking advantage of hot-button political reflexes, conservatives' ideological appeals to the ideal of citizen legislators do not adequately disclose the types of people who will probably take advantage of the `new accessibility to office holding.' As Professor of Government Morris Fiorina writes, such a system "advantages the independently wealthy, professionals with private practices, independent business people and others with similar financial and career flexibility."

All these groups will likely be double happy if the Republican efforts to hand off a balanced budget amendment to the states finally succeed. The balanced budget initiative is touted as the quintessential embodiment of the "people's will"--more than 80 percent of Americans support it. Yet with an equal percentage also opposing most major budget cuts, the mandate for such an amendment is hardly clear.

What is clear is the likely effect of a balanced budget requirement on U.S. social programs. Given the public's exaggerated antipathy towards taxes, the imperative to balance the budget will cripple liberal constituencies across the board. Such a constitutional amendment is designed to cloak the discretionary in the guise of the necessary, to justify otherwise indefensible roll-backs of governmental responsibility. And it provides cover for changing even more rules of the political process in order to guarantee continued Republican ascendancy.

Over the next few weeks, a House appropriations subcommittee will debate the fate of federal funding for legal services agencies. Established in 1970, the federal Legal Services Corporation his funded thousands of local agencies which protect the legal rights of the poor, disabled and elderly. Although most legal services centers now have to turn away close to three-fourths of eligible cases which come to their attention, House Republican Bob McCollum has recently proposed "zeroing out" funding for this program by 1997. McCollum objects most to cases launched by legal service centers against state and federal government agencies in order to force them to maintain humane levels of social services. In response, most legal service lobbyists have downplayed this aspect of their advocacy, emphasizing instead their achievements in family law and homelessness prevention.

Although such emphases are both politically effective and statistically accurate (more than 90 percent of Massachusetts legal services cases last year dealt with direct client representation in matters such as child custody and landlord-tenant disputes), they neglect direct confrontation with Republicans on the issues at hard. Poverty advocates should be proud of their role in calling the state to account when it fails in its commitments to the disadvantaged. As Justice Scalia's recent article "The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules" demonstrated, most of the reactionaries currently on the Supreme Court have given up on judicial restraint as a doctrine to confining to permit reversals of Warren Court precedents. It's now apparent that their counterparts in Congress have found a new way to manipulate the judicial branch to their ends--by crippling their opponents' ability to use the courts effectively.

Just as it was deployed to justify this attack on disadvantaged litigants' ability to use the courts effectively, the balanced budget imperative was brandished by Senate Republicans last month in order to disenfranchise poorer voters in Presidential elections. "Deficit hawks" led the charge to end public financing of presidential campaigns by branding the program an unaffordable luxury and abolishing the income tax check-off box that funds it. Having out-fundraised Democrats in soft-money contributions for the past several presidential elections, this Republican effort is blatantly self-serving.

Fortunately, conscientious senators' support of "democracy at any cost" managed to prevail over this attack and the income tax check-off box will remain. But such a happy result may not last for long. After the Clinton-Gingrich "love-in" in New Hampshire last month, it may be difficult for Democrats to credibly charge the Republican rivals with such sinister tactics.

Anti-intellectual American public discourse always tends to marginalize the occasional systematic analysis of political phenomena as "conspiracy theory" or "ideology." However, few Germans perspicacious enough to perceive National Socialist efforts to consolidate power in the early 1930s were willing to publicly challenge Hitler's manipulation of electoral rules and political advocacy. American liberals should learn the lessons of the Weimar Republic and start questioning the institutional manipulations of their opposition. Without dramatic action, they risk being permanently disenfranchised by Newts' minions.