Part 6. Goodbye, Tweedle-dum.
What could the government of the most populated land in the world, China, possibly have in common with the smallest, the Vatican City State?
Clue: Iran and Sweden also have one.
A hint. Monaco and Luxembourg, two of the richest places in the world, have it. So do Chad and Somalia, two of the poorest.
Don’t know? Come on … Costa Rica and Croatia, Greece and Guatemala, Kuwait and Laos, Mali and Malta, Greenland and Uganda -- all have one.
What’s that you said? No, it has nothing to do with nonauthoritarian or authoritarian governments. Iceland and Israel have it; so do Cuba and North Korea.
Not Anglo-Saxon? Nope, wrong. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have it.
It ain’t American? Sorry, so sorry. Nebraska has one. So do Washington D.C., Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico has one in the works.
I saved the best clue for last. Odds are, it’s in front of your nose. Most American cities and counties have it.
I’ll put you out of your misery. The list is long. Roughly half of the sovereign nations in the world have it, including one of my favorite places, the Republic of Nauru, island nation of 8.1 square miles in Micronesia (see Part 5, this series).
What those incredibly different nations have in common: a unicameral legislature. That’s right -- no house and senate. Just one body does all the legislating.
The bicameral legislature of the American federal government and 49 of our 50 states originated in ancient Greece. In 594 B.C., the statesman, lawmaker and poet Solon created the Council of 400 in Athens to check the power of the ruling aristocracy. In 508 B.C., Cleisthenes carried on Solon’s work. He revolutionized the existing constitution, for which he is known as the Father of Athenian Democracy.
Fast forward 1,700 years. England‘s bicameral legislature evolved in the 1200s/1300s out of a council that advised the king. I lived 10 months in London. Lords and Commons: from what I saw, those names tell you where it’s at. The Lords membership is decided by the queen, and is for life. In 1999, a reform removed the automatic hereditary right to many peerages, but not all. Commons members, on the other hand, are elected by popular suffrage for varying terms up to 5 years maximum.
The original English legislature was not a polity, i.e., a hybrid of oligarchy and democracy. The House of Lords consisted of nobility and church leaders; the Commons, of knights and the bourgeoisie. However, the English bicameral system readily lent itself to modifications toward a polity. In designing the legislature for the United States polity, Madison, Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers used Britain as a model. To wit:
The Lords. 100 American senators, two per state, are elected for six year terms. Senatorial districts are statewide.
In time and space senators are more remote than
The Commons. U.S. house representatives are elected every 2 years and have districts based solely on population, at present 700,000 people.
The size difference in senate versus house constituencies can be gigantic. California, for example, has 2 senators and 53 house representatives.
The Founding Fathers believed that, due to their smaller districts and more frequent elections, house members would be closer to the -- as they are called in political circles – little people; hence, the representatives would represent them and not the rich.
It didn’t work. Otherwise, I wouldn`t have written this article. And you wouldn`t be reading it.
Today, the house is rolling in money. In 2008, the average net worth of a house member was $4,600,000.[i] 240 out of 435 house representatives were millionaires. That is 55%. In contrast, only 1% of Americans are millionaires.
Conclusion: it is a fairytale to claim the house represents the little people.
U.S. senators are, as the Fathers anticipated, richer than house members. In 2008, 68% of senators were millionaires. Their average net worth was almost $14 million. In 2009, their median wealth was $2,380,000.
Look at those numbers again. Call it what you will, it still remains the same. America has two Houses of Lords. I will amend that statement shortly.
The American polity, which lasted for 220 years and was admired worldwide, expired in 2008-9. Cause of death: suffocation by billions of Washington dollars doled out to America’s archi-rich. The moment the oligarchs stepped out from behind the curtain, the American system changed from a polity to an oligarchy. What happened was no change in, but rather of political systems.
With the death of the polity and the birth of a full-blown oligarchy, the original reason for having a bicameral legislature no longer exists. If the House of Representatives ever did anything significant differently from the senate -- a debatable point -- it no longer does.
But, at the end of the day, does America have a bicameral legislature?
A surprising question with an unexpected answer.
The French have a saying: Jamais deux sans trois. If you have two of something, a third will appear. If that is true, no bicameral legislature is bicameral.
Bicameral legislatures in fact have a third body which is ad hoc; it suddenly is, then is not. You won’t find it on any formal organization chart.
That third body is the Conference Committee.
In a bicameral legislature, whenever one body passes a version of a bill that is different from the one passed by the other body, the disparity must be resolved. For that purpose, a small group of members from the house and senate is appointed by the leaders. That group, the Conference Committee, meets in private.[ii] Its members iron out the discrepancies, and report back to their respective bodies, which vote to pass or reject the Conference Committee Report.
For many years I was the chief aide to the Majority Floor Leader of a House of Representatives; I saw hundreds of Conference Committee reports. When they arrived on the house floor, the Reports were routinely subjected not to a formal roll call but to a show of hands or voice vote; hence, there was no public record of who voted how. Not that it would have made a difference:
I do not recall a single Report being seriously debated, much less rejected. Which can open a dark door …
Conference Committees can go beyond the call of duty and insert major, un-called-for, new “stuff” that goes undetected until it is too late. That ability to sneak in new material -- or, as the case may be, old material that the legislature previously defeated -- is what makes the closed Conference Committee truly, fully, a third body.
Usually, the third body springs into full-fledged existence in the closing days of a legislative session, when legislators are exhausted, hassled, hurried. All the easier to quickly raise a hand in the air or shout “Aye!” Especially when everybody else is doing it
Of course, in a unicameral legislature, there is no secretive Conference Committee. Its subterfuges do not exist.
When discovered, art forgeries in museums are hurriedly consigned to the basement. Similarly, when a unicameral legislature is adopted, Conference Committees and all that does with them are quickly relegated to the outskirts of history. And they aren’t the only thing to be run out of town:
Representatives and senators often introduce legislation merely for political purposes. They know in advance the other body will kill their indispensable bill to save the republic. Don’t waste your time, though; searching emails or monitoring phone calls; I never saw a single case of a phony bill sponsor having to explain the facts of life to the leadership of the other body. Nod, wink.
Fraudulent bill sponsors never fear retaliation by voters. Batting averages are crucial in baseball. In legislatures, however, the percentage of bills a lawmaker sponsors that become laws means nothing whatsoever. “I tried,” your representative will tell you with a shrug and Cheshire cat grin. Henceforth, there’s your cue. It’s your turn to nod, wink. “Oh yeah?”
If a representative knows his bill was born in a coffin, why introduce it?
“Not really” bill sponsorship, aided and abetted by bicameralism, is a favorite scam of legislators to wring financial contributions out of everybody from oil tycoons and megabucks lobbyists to waitresses and farm workers.
Here is a case study you won’t find in any political science book:
Every year without fail in the legislature where I worked somebody would introduce a “Right to Work” (RTW) bill. (In right-to-work states, you do not have to join a union to get or keep a job.)
Seconds after the bill was dropped in the hopper, the same old battle lines formed. The “shocked” and “horrified” union leaders actually loved it. The RTW menace instantly justified their jobs and expense accounts; it gave them the excuse to “remind” thousands of dues-paying members who their “friends” were in the legislature. Nod, wink.
Enemies, too. Anti-union conservatives of course loved the bill, but not for the reason you would expect. Year after year, I watched the AFL-CIO trade away everything just to kill the RTW bill. “Tell me what somebody wants,” a RTW sponsor told me, laughing, twisting an invisible stiletto, “and I’ll tell you their weakness.” Thus, the conservatives got all the trade-offs; the unions were housebroken until the next legislative session.
As for the union leaders, having defeated the RTW they jubilantly went home and made scores of self-serving telephone calls to Washington; they held back-patting sessions up and down the state; they appeared on TV at the drop of a hat, and sent puff pieces to newspapers, which indolent editors in the boonies published verbatim; they gave spirited parties in which their rank-and-file members screamed “Victory!” among other things.
Everybody knows about chain letters. What they don’t fully realize is that such letters are predicated on failure, not success. After all, if chain letters really worked, they would travel around the world and back again, multiplying faster than clothes hangers in a closet. As the initiator of a chain letter, you would be sitting at home and suddenly receive millions of letters from China, India, Bangladesh, all demanding a free bottle of booze (or whatever). In short, if chain letters really worked, there would be no point in doing them.
Likewise, the RTW bill was predicated on failure. It was, in reality, a Full Employment Act for legions of lawyers and lobbyists. Passage of the bill would have brought down the curtain on this otherwise perennial and predictable, lucrative bit of stagecraft.
RTW had a second ultimate purpose which both sides shared in equal measure: rally the troops. I noticed that thousands of little people -- the perfect soldiers who faithfully marched and dutifully wrote letters -- irrevocably wound up being subjected to The Walt Disney School of Management principle: Children under 12 must be accompanied by money.
In such titanic struggles between the frogs and the mice, it is pointless to try to find the good guy and bad guy. Representatives and senators cheerfully alternated the roll of Mutt and Jeff -- who introduced the RTW bill, who killed it. Piles of other legislation, e.g., bills allowing for interstate banking and collective bargaining for public employees, were forever caught in the cogs of the same shameless shakedown.
When a unicameral legislature is adopted, senate/house crossfire tricks and traps expire. In the same vein, now that the polity is dead, it’s time for bicameral legislatures throughout America to give up the ghost. Our catastrophic deficit urgently demands that bicameral legislatures soaking the nation and states go the way of clackers , Metrecal, and the Edsel. To survive as a nation, we must stop kicking the can down the street.
* * *
In the movement to an American unicameral legislature, Nebraska leads the way.
Nebraska started out with a bicameral legislature. Following a trip to Australia in 1931, George Norris, the state’s extraordinary United States Senator and one of JFK’s profiles in courage, took up the unicam cause. He campaigned long and hard, arguing that bicameral legislatures were anchored in the undemocratic House of Lords. Senator Norris also believed it was utter nonsense and a waste of money to pay two groups to do the same thing.
He won. Nebraska’s unicam swung into action in 1937.
In debates over changing from a bicameral to a unicameral legislature, one bone of contention is invariably flung on the floor. Which should disappear, the house or senate? Here, again, Nebraska leads the way. Its 1934 amendment to the state constitution abolished the house and transferred its powers to the senate. As a result, with 49 senators, Nebraska has the smallest legislature in the nation.
The purpose of The Second American Revolution is to resurrect the polity, which entails reviving and strengthening the democratic component. Amending the Constitution to provide for national referenda (Part 2), obligatory voting (Part 4), and direct election of the president (Part 5) are all directed to that purpose. Given that goal, it would seem we should eliminate the senate -- the Lords -- not the house. However, that viewpoint has been overtaken by events. As mentioned, economic realities show that America now has two -- actually three -- Houses of Lords. By abolishing the house and keeping the senate, we eliminate hundreds of more politicos and consequently save more money.
Equally important, by abolishing the house we get rid of a soiled fairytale. 2,000 years ago, Aristotle observed how the polity, the “best” government consisting of an oligarchy/democracy hybrid, eventually is killed by the oligarchs:
"[Forgetting the claims of equity], they not only give more power to the well-to-do, but they also deceive the people [by fobbing them off with sham rights]. Illusory benefits must always produce real evils in the long run; and the encroachments made by the rich [under cover of such devices] are more destructive to a constitution than those of the people."[iii]
The 2008-2009 encroachments made by the rich leached out any remaining ground beneath the claim that the house represents the little people. They have been stuck with sham rights and illusory benefits, the flotsam jetsam of the sunk polity.
It’s time for the house to do formally what it has done in reality: disappear as a singular, distinguishable entity. In that regard ...
The next time your house representative holds a town meeting, Primrose Path him:
(i) Ask him if he wants to save us taxpayers a trainload of money.
(ii) He will exude a broad/broader/broadest smile, effuse a lite n’ lively “Aye.”
(iii) Announce you have hot idea that will save billions.
(iv) Your representative’s eyes will light up. He will exuberantly proclaim that to gather marvelous, creative, public-spirited, practical ideas is the purpose of such open meetings he is holding right now with you, the people. After all, you are the be-all and end-all of his uncompromising struggle and personal sacrifice to public service. Indeed, on most matters, the people like you know a hell of a lot more than Washington. So, …what is your hot idea?
(v) The primrose path ends. Instruct your representative to abolish the House of Representatives.
After presenting your hot idea, step back. You will observe a tilt sometimes to the side, sometimes forward or backward, in your representative’s body. Such is the inevitable outcome when somebody’s knees buckle.
Proceed to inform him you are tracking HR2551 RS, making appropriations for the legislative branch for the fiscal year ending September 30; 2012. Here, lawyer-like, your representative will try to derail you; he will briskly tell you any numbers are subject to change -- to which you briskly nod, wink, continue: as of September 15, 2011, appropriations for house salaries and expenses were $1,226,680,000. And that’s just the tip of the House iceberg.
Your representative will smile benevolently, smirk maybe, and inform you that “regrettably,” with regard to abolishing the house, it cannot be done. He is right (see below), but that is not the political point. Benevolently inform him you are paying him not to say no but to say yes and find a way. That’s his job; if he can’t do it, you’ll find somebody else.
One can and should argue that if the house is eliminated the senate will need more money to handle the additional workload. That is especially true, I must add, if required voting is enacted (see Part 4, this series); the number of voters could increase 40%. However, those costs would be greatly offset by savings in other areas, e.g., no more conference committees and house/senate crossfires. Those are just two of countless wastes of public money a unicameral legislature would end. [iv]
Of course, the house will never vote to abolish itself. The oligarchy won’t allow it. The hyper-rich love the existing bicameral system and its pretension to “democracy” with sacred “checks and balances.” Nothing new there -- the sham rights and illusory benefits Aristotle denounced two millennia ago inexorably characterize any transition from polity to oligarchy.
The proverbial bottom line: only public referenda can unwind the existing system and install unicameral legislatures on federal and state levels. A referendum is how Nebraska did it in 1934.
Nebraska may soon have company. On July 10, 2004, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico held a nonbinding referendum in which 84% of the voters approved a switch to a unicameral legislature. Assuming normal processes, that island could have a unicam in 2015.
I believe Puerto Rico’s landslide figure is a signpost for America. When the people favor a constructive and responsible measure by an overwhelming margin, it is destructive and irresponsible not to enact it. Undemocratic, too. That is why any Second American Revolution worthy of the name supports a unicameral legislature.
2012 elections are cranking up. I hope Gallup and other pollsters will ask voters about a unicameral legislature for America. I think I know the answer; so do you. 84%. Better get ready ...
Well, not actually. To let the American people decide if they want a federal unicam requires changing the Constitution to provide for a national referenda process (see Part 2 of this series). The American oligarchy will never permit that amendment.
Despite it all, in those phony as-if democratic meetings with your house representative, you can have fun. No politico or oligarch can stop you -- not yet, at any rate. In that regard, the miniscule Republic of Nauru has something else to offer …
Derived from the native language, the word nauru means “I go to the beach.” Go ahead. For primrose-pathing your house representative, you deserve it.
[i]The median net worth of a house member in 2009 was $765,010. The base pay: $170,000.
[ii]The Conference Committee exclusion from open meetings laws is not unique:
Ever been to a public meeting of a government body? Did you notice notes passed under the table and telephone calls for and from your public officials? Those communications demonstrate that within the open public meeting, other closed private meetings are taking place right in front of you. To my knowledge, nobody has ever complained about those secret reunions to which you, the public, are cordially not invited. Zero complaints mean everybody, including you, tacitly approves of those meetings -- which in turn means nobody truly, fully approves of the public meeting requirement. Welcome to an as-if world discussed in Part 5 -- the world in which everyone behaves as-if we really had a “democratic” and “transparent” government “regulated” by “sunshine” laws in the “public interest,” etc.
Look out! -- not all closed private meetings in open public ones are verbal. Watch for hand signals. I recall a legislative committee chairman who dropped his pencil on the table if he wanted a motion to table a bill; pointed the pencil down if he wanted a Do Not Pass recommendation; pointed the pencil up if he wanted a Do-Pass recommendation. Worked every time.
[iii] Aristotle, The Politics of Aristotle, translated and edited by Ernest Barker, Oxford University Press, New York, 1962, p. 186. (Book IV, Chapter XII). Brackets made by the translator.
[iv] I won’t belabor the obvious. To cite one more example, which this Second American Revolution series will investigate in depth: with a senate only, the plague of reapportionment lawsuits infesting America will become a distant memory.