The Machinery of Government

I have concluded, based on numerous recent conversations I have observed and participated in on Twitter, that a significant number of good hearted, well intentioned Americans do not understand certain details of the machinery of our government.

This is unfortunate, because what we do on election days is elect people to operate that machinery on our behalf.

This is not meant as an insult. As I often say, I was born ignorant and naked, and so far I’ve gotten dressed. Anything you never learned you don’t know. We’re all born ignorant. We know how to find a tit and suck. Everything else comes later.

So I offer a few words on the machinery of government.

The machinery of government is the most important thing to understand on election day. The machinery of government is more important than your candidate’s stand on literally any specific issue except party affiliation. Because the way the machinery is configured either the Republicans or the Democrats are going to have absolute control over the government you live under. Absolute control.

The first, and most important, fact about the machinery of American Government is that the President, chief executive though he or she may be, does not control the country. That distinction goes to Congress. More on that some other day.

There are a few forms of government in which a committee or legislature calls the shots. The best known and best respected of those is the republic, but China, far from a republic, is also governed by a committee. To the extent that the United States adheres to our Constitution, we are a republic. In a republic the supreme power lies with the voters, but they only get to exercise that power on election days. On a day-to-day basis the legislature they elect runs the country.

All legislatures operate on some specific set of rules, often similar to Robert’s Rules of Order, the widely accepted rule book for enabling groups of people to resolve differences and make decisions. Robert’s Rules, in turn, were based on the procedures of the United States Congress. The United States House has their own particular rules, The Procedures of the United States House of Representatives.

One fundamental characteristic of all sets of parliamentary rules is that they give final control to the majority, loosely defined as that group of people who are able to agree to elect a Speaker, who is the presiding officer.

Control of the United States government goes to that group or party  whose voters are able to elect 50% + 1 of each house of Congress. Some rules define a larger majority, such as the dying Senate Filibuster rule, but in the House of Representatives a majority is exactly 50% + 1.

It was not intended that majorities would exercise dictatorial, absolute power. During the same era as our nation’s founding, political philosophers discussed the potential evil of the Tyranny of the Majority. Various characteristics of our government and Constitution show the influence of these discussions.

The above-mentioned Robert’s Rules of Order was written based on the procedures of the US Congress. The rules have been described as follows:

“Rules in the book are based on the rights of the majority, of the minority (especially a strong minority that is greater than one third), of individual members, of absentees, and of all these together.”

(The above copied and pasted from Wikipedia)

Obviously the United States Congress today has chosen to totally disregard the rights of the minority, especially a strong minority. That “stronger than one third” reference comes directly from the once respected rights of the Senate minority. At this time, minorities in Congress have essentially very few to no rights.

And unfortunately, the rules that give the majority absolute power are clearly spelled out, and the rights of the minority are more of an ideal embedded in the procedures than any specific written rules. The so-called Filibuster was a specific written right in the Senate rules, but both parties have whittled it away until now it is very limited. I am not confident that any remnant of the Filibuster will survive the current Senate,

If you get fanatics without honor like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, Fifty Percent Plus One have absolute control over every bill that goes to the floor. As an example, any member of Congress can submit a bill, but before that bill can be voted on by either House it is referred to a committee. The committee can, in turn, send it to the particular chamber for a vote, or not. After it comes to the floor, the Speaker or Majority Leader still controls whether the bill is brought to a vote. So the supposed power of any member of Congress to submit a bill is meaningless: the majority decides which bills will be brought to a vote.

In years gone by bills used to  get passed even though they did not have solid support by the majority. If enough members, of both parties in the aggregate, vote to pass a bill, that bill becomes law. In recent years, however, unless there are enough votes from the majority party alone to pass the bill, Speakers have refused to allow a vote. Yes, that means that bills supported by a majority of the Congress will never pass because they are not supported by a “majority of the Majority.” This is sometimes known as the Hastert Rule, in honor of former Republican Speaker (and convicted pedophile) Dennis Hastert, who made it his absolute policy.

The committees of Congress, as well, have the power to stop every law, without explanation, if the majority in the committee votes to block it. And once again, the leader elected by the majority party appoints the committee chairmen, and decides what number of members from which party will make up the committees.

There’s that 50% + 1 again. They have the votes in the committees, too. And two thirds of the staff.

These majorities are elected by the voters. Candidates identify with, usually in this country, one of two major parties. Some countries – Israel is a classic example – have candidates who identify with numerous different parties and a mechanism in their procedures which allows for parties to commit to work together as a group, therefore providing a means to manufacture a majority out of a group of more-or-less agreeing minorities. Neither house of the United States Congress has any equivalent rule. Instead, in our Congress even someone elected on any affiliation besides Republican or Democrat has to join with one of those two parties in order to so much as vote in the elections of leader, or to be considered for committee membership. By our legislature’s rules, we are a two party system, period.

The difference is moot. In any set of any quantity, be they legislators or grains of sand on the beach, there is only one majority. Even in Israel, the same small parties routinely join with the same big parties to make majorities. Calling themselves something else satisfies their voters, it appears, but their legislature still operates with one majority, with everybody else in the minority. Fifty percent plus one. All the rest can be defined as this or that subset, but one clear subset is “the minority,” which consists of all subsets except the majority.

In every legislature in the world, one majority is in charge. Everybody else is treated with more or less respect, depending on the country and level of civilization, but there are by definition two parties, the one that is running the show and the other one.

Under the rules of our Congress there is no mechanism to join parties into a majority. Under our rules if you want to be considered for a committee, which is where the real stuff happens, you have to sign up with the Democrats or the Republicans. These are the rules of the respective Houses of Congress. Our Constitution expressly gives Congress, each house, the right and power to make their own rules.

The rules, in turn are written by – are you ready for this? – the majority in each house.

So if you call yourself an Independent, and you vote for two Republicans and one Democrat or whatever, then whichever of those is in the majority party participates in government, and the other sits and watches, especially under our current brutal Congressional leadership. Was that what you wanted? Take your opportunity to be represented three places in government and say, “Nah. One or two is plenty.”

Because if you vote for people of different parties, the only certainty is that one of those parties will be in the minority.

What if you vote for the Green, the Libertarian, or whatever other fringe party candidate is out there? Well, in that case there are two possibilities. One is that your chosen candidate/party does not have enough supporters to get elected, and the other is that s/he does.

If your candidate doesn’t get elected and was never going to – say s/he got 2% of the vote in your district – then whatever you call it or however you think of it, you chose to not participate in self-government.

Because that is all voting is. It is all elections are. Voting is an opportunity to participate in governing yourself. It is optional. Given that as the rules are written either a Republican or a Democrat is going to be running this country, if you don’t choose one of them you are not participating in governing yourself. You are letting other people choose.

Say you voted Green, and live in a ultra-liberal district somewhere, and your green candidate wins the seat.

Wherever that seat is, your chosen Green will have two choices: ally with the Democrats, or ally with the Republicans.

Because either the group called The Democratic Party, or the group called The Republican Party, is going to elect the person who runs that body.

That’s the way the machinery works.

The way American citizens govern themselves is by electing majorities in the two houses of Congress. Those majorities run as, and govern as, political parties.

It’s not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got. If you want to participate in self government in America, this is how we do it.

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3 thoughts on “The Machinery of Government”

  1. I wish my friends who always want to cast votes for fringe candidates as a protest vote would understand this!

  2. Brilliant! I wish the anti-Bernie people understood why he registered as a Democrat. And that’s where we are. I can dream that a truly progressive party will someday morph from the present Dem party.

    1. The real party is us in the trenches. We’ve just got to agree on some things, agree to disagree on others, and get to winning elections. We can build a better party and better country than we have now, but winning elections is key.

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