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31 October 2014 19:37 (South Africa)
World

Op-Ed: The end of the Parliament as we know it?

  • J Brooks Spector
  • World
brooks-parliaments-end-subbedm.jpg

The anniversary of the American Civil Rights Act and the contemporary logjam in US politics allows J. BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate whether or not parliaments remain the right place for discussing the real issues faced by complicated societies like the US or South Africa.

This past week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act in the United States. Hailed at the time as a triumph of Congress-wide bipartisanship, bridging Democrats and Republicans alike in dealing with the country’s most divisive issue; it is probably more accurate to say the resulting successful passage of that legislation actually represented a broad coalition between the northern wing of the Democratic Party and most of the Republicans in Congress – and especially its national party leadership in the Senate.

This resulting majority coalition held together – despite the stresses and strains of partisan politics - in opposition to the segregationist “old bulls” of the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party’s southern-style leadership. These old bulls were the ones who effectively controlled the Senate’s committee apparatus by virtue of the seniority system that largely ran the business of the Senate. As a result, leadership of those crucial committee structures translated into control of the shape of legislation that emanated from – or was bottled up in - those committees, and then onto the floor of the Senate for consideration as to its possible fate as legislation. This had usually been the fate of any number of civil rights bills introduced over the years in the Senate.

The ultimate passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was easier in the House of Representatives. There, Democrats – and especially northern Democrats – had significant weight of numbers by virtue of the large populations of the northern states and thus their congressional delegations. And the party leadership in the House was generally held by veteran northern Democrats.

But in the Senate – with two senators per state regardless of their relative population sizes – and with southern Democrats holding those committee chairmanships because they were reliably elected and re-elected every six years, often virtually unopposed for decades – and thanks to the Senate’s longstanding rules allowing unlimited debate on the floor of the Senate, even if a bill could be prised from a committee, such proposed legislation could still easily languish to its ultimate failure as proposed law, quite literally by being talked to death through filibuster. As a result, it took statesmanship of a high national order, rather than the more usual partisan or regional interests, to bring together sufficient votes from Democrats and Republicans alike to break the filibuster and thus bring forward a formal vote on its final passage.

In the end, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate by 73 to 27 votes, with 27 out of 33 Republican senators voting in favour of it – and with only six Republicans voting against the bill. One of those, of course, was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, whose positions such as his nay vote of the Civil Rights Act and his right-wing-style candidacy as the Republican challenger for the presidency that same year helped trigger the more extreme politics of today’s Republican Party.

Back in 1964, the Democratic Party had held a virtual lock on the old South, but, now, those same Senate seats in the eleven states of the old Confederacy are now solidly Republican – and Republicans who are – in the main – supportive of and sympathetic to the ideas and legislative goals of the Tea Party wing of the party that was once proud party of Lincoln. The stage has now become arranged for the kind of ideological deadlock in which the two parties are seen in a virtual cold war across that ideological frontier. This, of course, has affected congressional consideration of almost every form of congressional action – from the fundamental to the prosaic – and the idea that a broad bipartisan coalition could come together for the passage of national legislation has been dispatched to that infamous ashcan of history.

As Politico commented recently, “Congress is deadlocked on every big question, from immigration reform to a grand bargain on taxes and spending, so it’s hard to believe the two parties once cooperated to address the single most controversial domestic issue of the day – legal equality for the races – or that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill 50 years ago Wednesday [2 July 1964], in the middle of a presidential election year. Now Boehner [the Republican Speaker of the House] is suing President Barack Obama for failing to faithfully execute the laws, and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid inveighs daily about the Koch brothers’ contributions to GOP causes.”

Congressional old-timers increasingly point out that friendships across party lines – and even informal get-togethers over a meal to chew both the food and the nation’s needs – increasingly are a thing of the past. They note that the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy was one the last senators willing to sit down and bargain hard but amicably over controversial legislation with his opposite numbers across the aisle – without the kinds of public name-calling that increasingly is the norm these days.

In South Africa, meanwhile, the first democratically elected parliament, back in 1994, had found relatively little to bicker about in its initial deliberations – not surprising, given the enormity of the task of responding to so many pent-up demands, and the immediacy of the need to generate a new legitimacy for an untested national government. The South African approach of a government of national unity appropriately spelled out an understanding of the need for the kinds of consensus actually needed to govern.

Now contrast that picture with the one that presents itself almost daily in South Africa’s national Parliament – and increasingly in provincial ones as well. The majority party abruptly overrules the right of parliamentarians to criticise the government; parliamentarians such as members of the red-bereted Economic Freedom Fighters are literally ejected from a legislative chamber by virtue of their (admittedly unorthodox) sartorial choices; and the very stature of the legislative bodies become demeaned as members choose to hurl insults at each other, using the kind of language more usually as part of a middle school squabble between rival gangs at recess time in the school yard.

If, in America, the Congress is unable to reach agreements on such basic things as a government budget or immigration reform, South Africa’s parliament (as well as its political parties) seems frozen into immobility or confusion over the increasingly pressing economic transformation agenda. This is in addition to more specific – albeit distasteful - tasks such as setting to right various of those badly run, near-to-breaking state-owned enterprises such as Eskom.

In fact, this kind of parliamentary, legislative logjam – whether it is in the US or South Africa – helps feed a wearying cynicism on the part of average citizens who have begun to wonder if it is even worth bothering to vote for political party parliamentary representation (South Africa’s voting percentage of the total electorate has been dropping steadily since the first all-race, democratic election). And the nightly television news in America is replete with continuing images of snarling, squabbling congressmen and senators who seem fundamentally incapable of even reaching agreement on the government’s national budget – something that is, after all, one of Congress’ primary constitutional responsibilities. It should come as no surprise, as a result, that in poll after poll where Americans are asked how they respect various occupations, the role of a congressman consistently comes in well below the respect accorded used-car dealers and door-to-door insurance salesmen.

This kind of waning respect for politicians – and the political process more generally – gives growing numbers of people a sense that political party-fuelled legislative politics may even be the wrong way to cope with the urgencies of the economic, social, political and technological challenges faced by complex industrial societies. And that, of course, feeds growing suspicions that something more effective must take the place of legislatures, if national problems are addressed and resolved in some timely way – rather than being ignored or put off for the gauzy future to solve somehow, in some undefined way and time.

The usual prescriptions for solving these impasses in America are preachments for greater civility among politicians and a greater willingness by them to compromise across party frontiers; and a greater willingness in South Africa for the political space to allow for parliamentary “free votes”, as well as to open up the representation space by allowing for constituency-based elections. But the real problem may, of course, be much deeper in both societies. That is a worrying sense that there are growing splits within the respective societies over the very nature of the societies people hope to live in – and what they hold to be those self-evident political, social or economic truths about their respective nations and communities.

Historically, the resolution of such conflicts and differences have been the key assigned task of legislatures – but what is to be done if groups and factions within those societies themselves have such different views on essentials that they cannot find a way through the partisanship that divides? Over two hundred years ago, back at the dawning of the American governmental system at the end of the eighteenth century, near the conclusion of his presidency, George Washington had famously warned his fellow Americans about the dangers of factions – political parties had not yet actually been invented.

The very structure of America’s government had been designed around the idea that wise elders – a clear lesson that had been drawn from Plato’s conception of the ideal political universe – would be charged with making the really important, really hard choices on the basis of their experience and knowledge, rather than letting the decisions arise out of the creative destruction and conflict of partisan clash. Is it possible that, now, the very problems of the modern age have finally become so big and so complicated that they can no longer be left to the mercy of partisan bickering, with its incessant eye for immediate partisan advantage, or with its ongoing oblique look over the shoulder at the potential results of the next election? And if not legislatures, what can, or should, take its place? DM

Read more:

  • Why the Civil Rights Act couldn’t pass today, in Politico.com

Photo: {L} South African President Jacob Zuma (R), Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa Baleka Mbete (L) and South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (C) take the national salute before Zuma's State of the Nation address in parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 17 June 2014. EPA/RODGER BOSCH [R} Leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Julius Malema (C) arrives wearing a worker's overall for the State of the Nation address at parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 17 June 2014. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

  • J Brooks Spector
  • World


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