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Absent Republicans defended your rights

The walkout by Republican legislators, apart from the immediate impact on the cap-and-trade bill and other pending legislation, highlighted a crisis in government in our country. Despite seemingly universal criticism of the “boycotters,” there was more to the story and much more at stake in this conflict. Even if you disagree with them on the issues, we should value their courage. Someday you may even thank them.

To get a clearer perspective of the Republicans’ tactics, let’s stand back and gain some historical and philosophical perspective.

What is basis of just government? Almost everyone would agree it must be responsive to the will of the people. But is that the sole consideration? Are there other elements in a wise system of governing principles? For those whose history is rusty, recall that America’s founders explicitly and emphatically crafted a system that was not to be a democracy, but rather a representative republic.

Based on the lawmaking experience of our English forebears, with both a House of Commons and a House of Lords, the legislative branch of the United States originally comprised both a directly elected House and a Senate selected by state legislatures. This structure was chosen to address the question of how to fashion a system that justly considers the interests of competing constituencies within society. Based on their studies of history, the Founders strove to fashion a system to prevent what is termed the tyranny of the majority — the death knell of popular governments.

If we truly seek a civil society, the majority needs to honor the concerns of those outside their number. Not submit to them — they are after all the minority. One might hope a humanely led majority would never abuse its power. But to secure just government, there must be objective mechanisms to buffer the passions of a reckless, overriding majority swept along by unbridled emotion or ideological excess.

In England, the House of Lords served just such a purpose, leavening the immediate “will of the people” with the legacy of history, or a measure of “institutional memory.” So too with the original conception of the U.S. Senate: not popularly elected, but selected as determined by each state’s legislature. This second body incorporated deference to the interests of various communities that might hold views differing from those reflected by the latest popular vote.

This binary method of lawmaking — a popularly elected House of Representatives and an indirectly elected Senate — served the young republic well. However, gradually the wisdom of this balanced legislative tradition was eclipsed as many states adopted direct election of senators. And with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, all U.S. senators were henceforth chosen by popular vote.

However, many states preserved the principle of community representation in their legislatures. Some required that each county have at least one senator, regardless of population, to protect agrarian and rural interests versus the growing power of the cities. But the Warren Court’s “one-person-one-vote” decision) in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) eliminated this remnant of community-based representation. Thus the U.S. took a further step toward pure democracy, with all that this portended.

Let’s all acknowledge: Oregon’s Constitution clearly preserves mechanisms designed to respect minority rights: the requirement of a supermajority to pass tax increases, which the Democratic Party now enjoys; and the 60% quorum, the burning issue at present. It is also very clear that what the Republicans did was legal, was not without precedent, and was an exercise of this very “minority right” preserved in our state Constitution.

It may indeed be a blunt instrument, but it was the only one available to these representatives to fulfill what they sincerely believe is their obligation to their constituents. The “boycotters” were accused of shirking their jobs, even violating their oaths of office. “Their pay should be withheld.” “They’re whiners who quit when they don’t get their way.”

But in fact this is a classic case. If a minority is so adamantly opposed to a proposed law that its members are willing to bear public condemnation, even base insults, if they are willing to go so far as to risk their reelection — then Oregon law provides a means for them to block the majority.

Perhaps there is a better way to balance the agenda of Portland’s metro majority and the interests of rural communities to preserve Oregon’s civic harmony. But until such measures are incorporated into the state’s lawmaking process, the minority’s use of the crude tool of quorum denial should be respected.

Will Reishman is a financial adviser who lives in Medford.