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Political Animal

Lip-Service Democracy

By Brian Morton | Posted 8/20/2003

Maybe when the Iraqis get a democracy they can export some of it back here to the United States. After all, according to the Associated Press, the Iraqis are already providing helpful advice on how to deal with electricity blackouts, such as "sleep on the roof" and "go out and demonstrate." In an AP story, one Ahmed Abdul Hussein said after a recent blackout, "We held protests. After that we had fewer blackouts. . . . I'd suggest Americans go out and demonstrate." Unfortunately, as proved in Florida in 2000, that doesn't really do much good.

The electoral hijinks in California are really just the tip of the iceberg--everyone knows Californians would put a law on the ballot requiring that poodles be allowed to drive if you paid enough people a buck per signature to go and canvass for it. California Gov. Gray Davis (D) may be a money-sucking campaign machine with the personality of a piece of wet cardboard, but he isn't the one who drove the state's budget into the toilet; Golden Staters can thank a combination of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy pals and the 25-year property tax drain Proposition 13 had on the state's economy for much of that. Throw in a dissatisfied electorate, an amoral millionaire congressman with a lot of signature-gathering cash to throw around, and a surreal recall law, and you've got a recipe for a chief executive who could be elected with as low as 12 percent of the vote. This is democracy?

Despite what many may see as the Ah-nold juggernaut, there's something that could stand in the way of Tank Terminator: a little ballot initiative called Proposition 187. The brainchild of Schwarzenegger's campaign manager, former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), the proposition was the main impetus behind Wilson getting thrown out of office and California becoming one of the most Democratic states in the union. And the reason for this? Proposition 187--a bill to deny state services to illegal immigrants (later ruled unconstitutional)--made the state's sleeping giant of a Hispanic community wake up and take notice.

Now Hispanics outnumber whites in California, and their political power is growing as well. Schwarzenegger's admission that he voted for the measure will bring back all the ugliness surrounding the issue when it first hit the ballot in 1994. Already the actor's campaign manager is trying to spin Ah-nold's support for a schools initiative as something that links him and the state's Hispanics. But it's just another sign of conservatives trying to deny something to someone, a theme that's cropping up all over the country.

Meanwhile in Texas, the idea of democracy is taking it on the chin. For the past few months, a veritable sitcom of heavy-handed politicking has been taking place, courtesy of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay. Democratic members of the state's legislative body have had to flee the state not once but twice to thwart a GOP plan to ramrod through new congressional districts two years after the post-2000 Census redistricting.

In the initial incident, Texas state representatives bolted for the Oklahoma border, and in true banana republic style Republicans called in at least three federal agencies to hunt them down and return them to Austin in order to fill a quorum. Not a week after a Justice Department spokesperson said, "We did not deploy our federal law-enforcement resources," the FBI acknowledged that an agent out of Corpus Christi was sent to join the hunt for two days. After that boneheaded move, the state Depart-ment of Public Safety, in true Nixonian fashion, destroyed all the records pertaining to the search at the same time it was being asked to account for its behavior. Then, when a Texas House committee asked to see a security tape for the hallway outside of Texas House Speaker (and search ringleader) Tom Craddock's office, it mysteriously had a five-hour gap on it, corresponding to the time much of the action in the state house was focusing on the search.

Next, the Democratic members of the Texas Senate bolted for New Mexico at the end of July when Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst decided to arbitrarily ignore a tradition that required a two-thirds vote to debate any bill. On top of that, Dewhurst considered hiring off-duty law-enforcement officers to cross the border like bounty hunters and return the state senators to Texas--and the Republican state's attorney said that the state has a legal right to do so! What in the name of Sam Hill are they thinking down there?

Back in Washington, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), actually called the Capitol Police to throw some House Democrats out of a committee room when they adjourned there to protest one of his increasingly heavy-handed procedural moves.

Ten years ago, the GOP railed against the Democratic majority (and rightly so) for stifling the voice of the minority party. Once they took over the House in the 1994 Gingrich Revolution, the Republicans instituted a passel of reforms--stricter ethics rules, term limits for committee chairmen, and greater individual power for members. All those are long gone, just like the balanced-budget amendment and term limits on members of Congress. Who needs democracy? As DeLay once told off someone who chided him for smoking a cigar in a restaurant on federal property, "I am the federal government."

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