“Stop the World — I Want to Get Off” was a Broadway musical and movie in the 1960s about a guy overwhelmed with the pace of his life moving uncomfortably fast in a complex world.
With 2021 being a year of a pandemic; social justice events and decisions; Jan. 6 insurrection; a riveting, nationally televised trial; potential gas shortages; and continuing bickering about the last election, perennial debates about political reforms seem like an overload.
My approach to accessing political reforms is simple: If change does not cause harm to legitimate interests, and if they promote adopting policy changes that reflect public opinion, then I am probably for them. In short, I favor changes that increase democracy. A timely example: If voters of Missouri pass Medicaid expansion, then Medicaid should be expanded. I favor more changes, not less, to the American political system.
Three major political changes keep bubbling up on Capitol Hill: reforming election laws, expanding the Supreme Court and statehood for the District of Columbia. I have a predictable view on election reform but unconventional opinions on the Supreme Court and D.C. statehood.
Our approach to elections is unprincipled and flawed. Elections should be fair and open, with voting considered a citizen duty, not a political chess game. Imagine if we flipped the responsibility to states to ensure that all citizens voted before we tallied the outcome.
Most of the action and attention about election changes so far in 2021 has been on efforts in Georgia and Texas to reduce voting periods and absentee ballot collections. Almost half the states are considering “reforms” that make voting more difficult in the name of preventing election fraud, of which there is little or no evidence.
However, the U.S. Senate is about to do political battle over HR 1, the “For the People Act” that was passed by the House of Representatives two months ago. It is a long bill, and like most bills it has loads of different provisions. Its best known provisions require automatic voting registration using already existing state data banks; independent redistricting committees consisting of five Republicans, five Democrats and five Independents; and two-week early voting. Lesser known provisions prohibit political appointees from flying on private aircrafts and prohibit members of Congress from serving on for-profit boards of directors.
HR 1 also includes some specific provisions that would require the Census count prison inmates at their last known residence rather than where the prison is located. Because of the demographic composition of prison populations, this means some urban areas will gain population numbers, and therefore legislative representation, while some rural areas lose it.
Democrats argue the proposed election changes are reasonable and that uniformity in federal elections is desirable. The “For the People Act” has no support among Republican senators, who argue that it is a federal takeover of state elections. Therefore, there are not enough votes to shut off a filibuster ... unless this becomes the vehicle for changing the 60-vote closure rule. Stay tuned.
The number of Supreme Court justices is a political matter, not a constitutional matter. Originally there were six, then reduced to five to prevent Thomas Jefferson from making an appointment, then back to six, and then increased to nine in 1837. Workloads have increased substantially, and the post-retirement aged justices have increased in number since 1837. There are 13 federal appellate courts in the U.S., so having 13 justices makes sense. I would not be surprised if when it helps Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political interests, he suddenly sees the light. Until then, if the Democrats have the votes, they will aim to increase the court’s size — partly as a reaction to McConnell’s blocking President Obama’s nomination to succeed Antonin Scalia in 2016. That’s hard-ball politics. I don’t like it, but I know it when I see it.
My own view is that I would rather reduce the power of the Supreme Court in judicial review that rules federal legislation unconstitutional. I advocate “congressional review” for such court decisions within a practical time limit, say two years. Supreme Court reform is a big topic that needs the attention of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court established by President Biden by executive order last month. It is expected to consider practical changes such as an 18-year term limit.
Statehood for the District of Columbia seems like a power grab that is unlikely to be adopted as a standalone proposition, unless the Democrats achieve a two-thirds majority as they had after the 1964 election. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 clearly authorizes Congress to establish and govern a seat of federal government, not exceeding 10 miles square, to be seceded from states. The “taxation without representation” slogan seems tired and worn. If representation is the goal, then we should shrink the non-governmental area by giving it back to Maryland.
On the other hand, five states have fewer people than D.C., and they all have two senators each — just like California, which is about 33 times as large. We need to address legislative representation. With gerrymandering and uneven Senate representation, there is no “one person, one vote.”
If we could only slow down and face real problems one at a time, life would be easier and politics simpler and we might be able to address some fundamental flaws in our political system.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu. David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994. He can be reached at Webberd@missouri.edu.