Public Comment

Roadblocks to Democracy: Presidents, Senators, and Conference Committees

Gar Smith
Friday October 11, 2019 - 04:31:00 PM

As a child, I was taught that the US is a democracy and, I was led to believe, any country that holds elections to choose a president is, ipso facto, a democracy. When I was older, I was told that the US is actually a "Representative Republic" but we're still a free people because we are able to chose our own representatives and, of course, elect the president. 

But we're being scammed and it's not just the issue of the Electoral College—an anti-democratic institution designed to ignore the popular vote and rig the election. 

If you think about it, a country that elects a president is NOT automatically a democracy—not if the president wields the power of the veto. 

The veto gives any elected leader the ability to overrule the democratic process. No bill that percolates through the halls of congress and survives "resolution" within the Senate/House conference committees—no matter how popular it may be with the majority of citizens—is allowed to become law until a single authoritarian leader makes a personal decision to pick up a pen and sign the legislation into law. (Photo-ops optional.) 

And, speaking of the Senate and House. Any political system that includes "checks and balances" built into the legislative process cannot be called a democracy. The Senate was modeled after its Roman original—a cabal of the privileged and powerful, installed to act as a restraint against populist urges. (In the British Parliament, the elected House of Commons is kept in check by the "Upper House" of Lords who hold their seats by virtue of appointment or inheritance.) 

Heck, we Americans weren't even allowed to elect our own senators until 1913! (Thank, you, 17th Amendment.) As the official history of the US Senate explains, our Founding Dads "expected that senators elected by state legislatures would be able to concentrate on the business at hand without pressure from the populace." (Note: "pressure from the populace" is another way of saying "popular democracy.") 

And there's another Constitutional restraint on popular democracy. The House can't simply pass legislation on behalf of the people. The Senate needs to introduce similar legislation. And then both the Senate and House need to convene a Conference Committee to secretly hammer out a compromise piece of legislation that's agreeable to both sides. So the real legislative business is conducted behind closed doors with no public oversight. Again: not democratic. And who is on this critical committee that writes the final language in a closeted proceeding? Typically, senior members of the standing committees of the House and Senate committees that originally considered the legislation. How many members constitute a conference committee? After 15 minutes of Google-sleuthing, that remains unclear. Some reports say there may be an uneven number of legislators. It also would be useful to know if one side (the Senate perhaps) enjoyed a historic advantage over determining which bills emerge as Conference Reports that are then sent to the president's office. 

In the final analysis, presidents are, essentially, remnant overlords endowed with authoritarian power. (And so, too, are governors who exercise veto power over the legislative process.) Full-to-the-brim democracy is not on-tap in the US. Under our Constitution, We the People can only overrule the president's ultimate bill-killing powers by hoping our elected representatives can gather enough votes (two-thirds of each house) to override a presidential veto. Protecting the will of the people should not require such extravagant—and very difficult—remedies. 

According to Politico, as of March 3, 2019, US presidents had vetoed more than 2,500 bills while Congress had overridden fewer than 5 percent of the vetoes. In sum: not a democracy. 

Homework assignment: Can you name any country on Earth that actually allows its people to both write and ratify their own laws free from oversight and intervention by a senior, supervising authority?