Economics Prof. Charles Weise and political science Prof. Bruce Larson co-authored an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal's MarketWatch that appeared on Oct. 17. The piece asserted that American citizens should have more of a voice in congressional procedure, and was published mere hours after Congress made an agreement that ended a 16-day government shutdown.
Read Weise and Larson's full piece below or on MarketWatch.
Citizens should be able to get Congress to act
by Charles Weise (pictured, top) and Bruce Larson (pictured, bottom)
What if “we the people” had a voice in congressional procedure? What if there were a way for citizens to invoke cloture on legislation being held up by a determined — and often ideologically extreme — political minority in the House or Senate?
To give Americans a sense that Washington listens to their concerns, the Obama administration created an online platform called “We The People.” The platform allows Americans to submit a petition online; if the petition collects 100,000 signatures, administration officials will respond to it. The petition is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough.
What if, using the same online petition platform as “We the People,” citizens could force a vote on legislation, so that in the most extreme cases — such as legislation to keep the government operating — Americans could break the logjam in Congress and force action?
Since 2010, when the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and the Republicans took the House of Representatives, determined minorities in both houses have thrown roadblocks in the path of legislation that have made it impossible for Washington to govern.
Examples are plentiful.
In the Senate, the filibuster has been employed to block everything from health-care reform to judicial- and executive-branch nominations. Perhaps most painfully for many Americans, the mere threat of a filibuster caused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to adopt floor rules that killed gun-control legislation. The legislation was widely supported by Americans and even by a majority of senators.
In the House, the preferred weapon of obstruction has been the “Hastert rule” — an informal rule employed by the GOP stipulating that the speaker will not move a bill to a vote unless the bill has the support of a majority of the majority party. This rule permitted a minority of House members — mostly hardline conservatives in the Republican majority — to hold up legislation to keep the government operating after Oct. 1. Conservatives threatened to do the same to legislation to increase the debt ceiling, with potentially disastrous consequences for the world economy.
In each of these cases — and in so many other cases of contemporary political obstruction — the problem is not that the legislative measures lack majority support in the Congress. Rather, the problem is that congressional rules prevent bills that have majority support from coming to a vote.
And here is where Americans should come in.
Suppose that the House and Senate took the White House’s “We The People” platform one step further. Let’s call it American Voice. Any American could initiate a petition on the American Voice website for one House or the other to bring a bill to a vote. American Voice would be restricted to legislation that has been introduced or passed in one of the two chambers. If the petition receives a certain number of online signatures within a short period of time, the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader would be required to schedule a vote on the bill within a reasonable period of time — say two weeks. In both chambers, 30 hours of floor debate would be permitted, and each party would be permitted to make a limited number of amendments.
In other words, our proposal allows the public to call for cloture in the Senate and discharge petitions in the House of Representatives.
We are not proposing a California-style ballot initiative process. American Voice would not require Congress to pass legislation — only to vote it up or down.
On one hand, we might expect that few congressional leaders would want to relinquish vital control over the floor. On the other hand, leaders — and members serious about lawmaking more generally — might welcome a way to marginalize extremists in their party who have made serious legislating impossible and who have detracted from Congress’s institutional reputation.
Finally, from a political perspective, politicians who loudly proclaim that members of the other party “let the American people’s voices be heard” might have some difficulty opposing a mechanism designed to do exactly that.
Charles Weise is professor of economics and Bruce Larson is associate professor of political science at Gettysburg College.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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