A Sinister New Page in the Republican Playbook
On Tuesday, I wrote about the Republican effort to limit the reach and scope of initiatives and referendums as another instance of the party’s war on majority rule. One thing I wanted to include, but couldn’t quite integrate into the structure of the column, was a point about the recent use of legislative expulsion to punish Democratic lawmakers who dissent from or challenge Republican majorities.
We saw this in Tennessee, obviously, where Republicans expelled two Democratic members — Representatives Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis — for loudly supporting a youth protest for gun control from the statehouse floor using a bullhorn.
We saw another example this week, in Montana, after State Representative Zooey Zephyr, a transgender woman, spoke out against a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors. Calling her comments (“If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”) “disrespectful and “inappropriate,” Montana Republicans have barred Zephyr from attending — or speaking during — the House session for the rest of the legislative term, which ends next week.
In Nebraska, a Democratic lawmaker is being investigated by an ethics panel for a conflict of interest regarding her filibuster of another bill to ban gender-affirming health care for minors. The conflict? She has a transgender child.
And if we look back to last year, we’ll recall that House Republicans censuredformer Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their roles in investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
What to make of this?
Expelling or censuring members isn’t necessarily an attack on majority rule or popular government, and yet it feels more sinister, in a way, than an impenetrable partisan gerrymander or even a strict voter ID law. I think that’s because these moves against dissenting members constitute an attack on representation itself.
No one forced Tennessee Republicans to expel Representatives Jones and Pearson. They could have ignored them. But they were so incensed by the show of opposition that they deprived about 130,000 people of their representation in the legislature. Silencing and effectively banning Representative Zephyr means that about 10,000 people in Montana’s 100th District don’t have a voice in the legislature.
The foundation of modern American democracy is that all Americans deserve some kind of representation in the rooms where law and policy are made. Not content to control those rooms in states where they dominate the political scene, some Republicans have said, in essence, that representation is a privilege for communities whose chosen lawmakers don’t offend their sensibilities.
The Constitution guarantees to each state a “republican form of government.” I’ve written before about how this “republican form” is mostly undefined; neither the framers nor the courts have really said what it means for a state to have one. But I think we can at least say that when legislatures are stripping communities of representation over dissent and disagreement, it doesn’t exist.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was, as I mentioned, on the Republican attack on referendums and initiatives, and how the party has committed itself to circumventing the will of the majority wherever it thinks it’s necessary.
There’s still room for innovation, however, and in the past year Republicans have opened new fronts in the war for minority rule. One element in these campaigns, an aggressive battle to limit the reach of the referendum process, stands out in particular. Wherever possible, Republicans hope to raise the threshold for winning a ballot initiative from a majority to a supermajority or — where such a threshold already exists — add other hurdles to passage.
My Friday column was on the drama on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where its chairman, Dick Durbin, asked Chief Justice John Roberts to testify at a hearing on Supreme Court ethics. I wrote that the response from Roberts demonstrates something crucial about the relationship between the court and the American political order.
“Separation of powers,” in Roberts’s view, means the court is outside the system of checks and balances that governs the other branches of government. “Judicial independence,” likewise, means neither he nor any other member of the court has any obligation to speak to Congress about their behavior. The court checks, according to Roberts, but cannot be checked.
And in the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz, we discussed the 1995 political comedy “Canadian Bacon.”