Acceptably mild perjoratives just can’t quite express the level of outrage that again and again is merited by the House leadership for its political cluelessness or its lack of principle of lack of ethics (sometimes all three at once). Every week, it seems, brings yet another example of how the leadership tries to use strong-arm tactics to substitute for serious policy debate and to overcome principled objections to its desired outcomes from either the left OR the right. The latest example is yesterday’s dust-up over legislation to extend certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act, in which an expected vote on the subject was delayed after “rank-and-file Republicans revolted.” The Washington Post story on the subject said that Speaker Dennis Hastert and his lieutenants were “surprised” by “the intensity of the complaints” about the legislation. If so, their surprise is just another indication of how (adjectival — actually gerund — expletives deleted) out of touch Hastert and Company are with the actualy policy implications of what they attempt to do for purely (and often badly judged) political reasons.
Memo to the Speaker: The opposition is intense because the proposed legislation stinks to high heaven. It’s just that simple.
Background: The permanent parts of the Voting Rights Act, which ban poll taxes and literacy tests and racially motivated voting impediments, etc., are not at issue here. They are permanent because they deserve to be permanent, because they are important and manifestly good policy to combat racist actions. What is at issue NOW, though, is the IMpermanent Section Five of the act, which never was supposed to last beyond about a decade and instead has been in place for some 40 years — and now is threatened to be renewed for years more. The most important part of Section Five requires that southern states and a few other scattered counties receive “preclearance” from the Justice Department for ANY change in voting procedures, even ones as small as moving a polling location from, say, a high school gymnasium to the same school’s cafeteria. The idea is that these southern states are guilty of racist intent until they prove themselves innocent, and that they therefore can’t be trusted to run their own elections under ordinary rules of review (meaning, of course, in every other state, that any ILLEGAL elections changes can be challenged in court, which is all the protection needed for two-thirds of the country).
Congressional staffers and state attorneys-general’s offices have volumes upon volumes of examples of how Section Five is unduly burdensome on state and local authorities, and how at times the delays at main Justice have created serious problems with holding elections on time, etc. Section Five also has contributed mightily, de facto, to the racial gerrymandering of districts so that many legislative districts look like nothing so much as electoral apartheid, with all the blacks herded into one district by use of bizarre district lines while all the whites are put into another one. In short, it breeds racial separatism.
Meanwhile, some provisions in the pending legislation would mandate bilingual ballots in many places. Intelligent people have written volumes about why doing official government business in languages other than English is a big mistake, so I won’t belabor the point — other than to say that those provisions are particularly disturbing, and rightly so, to most of the GOPers who rebelled yesterday.
Of course, all of these provisions amount to an unfunded mandate on states and localities, which is yet another problem. WHich is all the more reason why A) most of Section Five should not be renewed at all and B) the leadership’s refusal even to allow some amendments to alleviate some of the problems, and its strong opposition to other good amendments that it will at least allow to be voted on, combined with its arrogance in not even previously listening to reasonable concerns about the bill, is, in toto, utterly obnoxious, reprehensible, and inexcusable.
Finally, an important note: Although the Post (predictably) said only that “some Republicans” in several southern states complain about the unfairness of singling out only certain states for the provisions at issue, the fact is that the respected opposition to most of Section Five is bipartisan and biracial. For instance, Thurbert Baker, the black, Democratic Attorney General of Georgia, is on record in court filings as being opposed to much of Section Five. On this particular point, I’ll have more to say later, because what I’ll say later shows the incredible superciliousness, the awful cultural condescension, of the section’s supporters.
Conclusion: Hastert and his ilk may be afraid of being accused of being against “voting rights,” but that’s no excuse for their refusal to even consider the possibility that opponents have legitimate concerns. The refusal is a sign either of lack of principle, or lack of political courage, or both. Shame on them.