Democracy crumbles under cover of darkness

Opinion

Never before has the House of Representatives operated in such secrecy:

At 2:54 a.m. on a Friday in March, the House cut veterans’ benefits by three votes.

At 2:39 a.m. on a Friday in April, the House slashed education and health care

by five votes.

At 1:56 a.m. on a Friday in May, the House passed the Leave No Millionaire Behind tax-cut bill by a handful of votes.

At 2:33 a.m. on a Friday in June, the House passed the Medicare privatization and prescription drug bill by one vote.

At 12:57 a.m. on a Friday in July, the House eviscerated Head Start by one vote.

And then, after returning from summer recess, at 12:12 a.m. on a Friday in October, the House voted $87 billion for Iraq.

Always in the middle of the night. Always after the press had passed their deadlines. Always after the American people had turned off the news and gone to bed.

What did the public see? At best, Americans read a small story with a brief explanation of the bill and the vote count in Saturday’s papers.

But what did the public miss? They didn’t see the House votes, which normally take no more than 20 minutes, dragging on for as long as an hour as members of the Republican leadership trolled for enough votes to cobble together a majority.

They didn’t see GOP leaders stalking the floor for whoever was not in line. They didn’t see Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay coerce enough Republican members into switching their votes to produce the desired result.

In other words, they didn’t see the subversion of democracy.

And late last month, they did it again. The most sweeping changes to Medicare in its 38-year history were forced through the House at 5:55 on a Saturday morning.

The debate started at midnight. The roll call began at 3 a.m. Most of us voted within the typical 20 minutes. Normally, the speaker would have gaveled the vote closed. But not this time; the Republican-driven bill was losing.

By 4 a.m., the bill had been defeated 216-218, with only one member, Democrat David Wu, not voting. Still, the speaker refused to gavel the vote closed.

Then the assault began.

Hastert, DeLay, Republican Whip Roy Blount, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin – all searched the floor for stray Republicans to bully.

I watched them surround Cincinnati’s Steve Chabot, trying first a carrot, then a stick; but he remained defiant. Next, they aimed at retiring Michigan Congressman Nick Smith, whose son is running to succeed him. They promised support if he changed his vote to yes and threatened his son’s future if he refused. He stood his ground.

Many of the two dozen Republicans who voted against the bill had fled the floor. One Republican hid in the Democratic cloakroom.

By 4:30, the browbeating had moved into the Republican cloakroom, out of sight of C-SPAN cameras and the insomniac public. Republican leaders woke President George W. Bush, and a White House aide passed a cell phone from one recalcitrant member to another in the cloakroom.

At 5:55, two hours and 55 minutes after the roll call had begun – twice as long as any previous vote in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives – two obscure western Republicans emerged from the cloakroom. They walked, ashen and cowed, down the aisle to the front of the chamber, scrawled their names and district numbers on green cards to change their votes and surrendered the cards to the clerk.

The speaker gaveled the vote closed; Medicare privatization had passed.

You can do a lot in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness.



Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) represents Lorain, Akron and other communities in Lorain, Summit, Cuyahoga, and Medina counties in northeast Ohio. This commentary appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Dec. 11, and is reprinted by permission of the author.