A Dictator in the House

In his encyclical Centesimus annus Saint Pope John Paul II upheld the separation of governmental powers into the legislative, executive, and judicial spheres, and said that “it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds.” [1] This, he said, “is the principle of the ‘rule of law’, in which the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals.”

Opposed to this principle is totalitarianism, “which, in its Marxist-Leninist form, maintains that some people, by virtue of a deeper knowledge of the laws of the development of society, or through membership of a particular class or through contact with the deeper sources of the collective consciousness, are exempt from error and can therefore arrogate to themselves the exercise of absolute power.” Totalitarianism, must, of its very nature, ultimately “involve a rejection of the Church.” This is because the “State or the party which claims to be able to lead history towards perfect goodness, and which sets itself above all values, cannot tolerate the affirmation of an objective criterion of good and evil beyond the will of those in power, since such a criterion, in given circumstances, could be used to judge their actions.” Thus, the Church and totalitarianism will always be headed toward a confrontation wherever totalitarianism prevails. Totalitarianism, because of what it is, “attempts to destroy the Church, or at least to reduce her to submission, making her an instrument of its own ideological apparatus.”

For this reason, the “Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends.”

On June 22nd, House Democrats conducted a “sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand a vote on gun control legislation.” [3] They were “pushing for a vote on the so-called ‘no fly, no buy’ bill, which would prevent those on terrorist watch lists from purchasing arms,” a measure that “gained public traction after a gunman killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando” earlier in the month.

The casual observer of American politics might wonder why it was necessary for the House Democrats to engage in such behavior. Aren’t they members of Congress themselves? Why don’t they simply propose the legislation they desire and submit it to a vote?

Strange as it may seem, they can’t. As it turns out, according to the rules that govern the House of Representatives, one representative, representing one district out of the 435 total congressional districts, has the power to prevent any measure that he disagrees with from being voted on: the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. This is not a power that the Constitution gives him, but one he enjoys by virtue of the rules made by the House of Representatives to govern itself. Whatever the source of his power, it should have no place in a democracy worthy of the name, because it gives him an absolute veto over any proposed legislation, even though he was elected to office by only a small fraction of the total American electorate. Even the president, who comes to office through a nation-wide election, can have his vetoes of legislation overridden by Congress. But the Speaker of the House can stop any legislation dead in its tracks simply by refusing to bring it to the floor for a vote.

A particularly pernicious embodiment of this power is what is called the “Hastert Rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert. [4] It is an informal rule whereby the Speaker refuses to bring any proposed legislation to the floor unless it is supported by a majority of his own party. Implementation of the rule can result in a situation where a bill will have the support of a majority of the total members of the House, but be supported by only a minority of the Speaker’s party and, thus, never make it to the floor for a vote. [5] There is no way to describe this other than to say that it constitutes an outright thwarting of American representative democracy.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. In the United States, Speaker of the House is a highly partisan position. But the Constitution doesn’t require that. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t even require that the Speaker be a representative. If the House of Representatives decided that it would select a non-partisan parliamentarian as Speaker it would be entirely within its constitutional powers to do so. To give an example of how the speakership could operate quite differently, the Speaker of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons is required to act in a strictly non-partisan manner, and has an affirmative duty “to protect the rights of minorities in the House” even to the point of ensuring “that the holders of an opinion, however unpopular, are allowed to put across their point of view.” [6]   

Such a rule change would be welcome, and could even be effective if a similar reform could take place in the Senate. Unfortunately, the constitutionally mandated presiding officer of the Senate is the vice-president (when he chooses to be there), and convincing the vice-president to act in a non-partisan manner would prove to be a tall order now that the office has evolved into being a part of the administration. Moreover, the real leadership in the Senate consists of the party leaders, rendering the Senate’s processes inexorably political.

The best solution would be for the Constitution to be amended to provide that every representative and every senator has the right to present bills to their respective houses and have them voted on. That any other arrangement is undemocratic in the extreme, and constitutes an effective denial of suffrage in the districts and states where the senators and representatives are denied such access, cannot be gainsaid.

As for the immediate issue at hand, I have written about gun control, the Second Amendment, and what can be discerned about Catholic social teaching on the subject in a previous article. [7] Suffice it to say for present purposes that there is a decisive lack of common sense in permitting an individual who has been marked as too dangerous to allow on an airplane to purchase a high-capacity rifle.

But what has been said here doesn’t apply only to the present debate about gun control. Regardless of the issue, having the ability to block legislation, even legislation that will enjoy majority support, is far too much power to give to one person. It is a dictatorial, totalitarian kind of power of the kind that Saint Pope John Paul II warned us about: the kind that “cannot tolerate the affirmation of an objective criterion of good and evil beyond the will of those in power….”

We need to change this right away.