Thursday, May 19, 2005

Ballot boxes in France and the US

Ballot boxes in France and the US

….Chapel Hill – In the next ten days, there likely will be at least two of the most critical votes ever taken in the US and in France.

French voters will decide whether to accept the draft European Constitution.

In the US Senate, our elected senators are likely to “vote” on whether to change decades of history and eliminate the filibuster.

Much rides on each vote.

In France, many believe that a rejection of the document will threaten the fundamentals of the European Union, an organization created at the urging of France, among just a dozen that created the first version of the Union.

In the US, many believe that the rights of whatever is the minority party in the US Senate will be eviscerated by ending the filibuster which gives less than a simple majority of the Senators the ability to stop the majority from taking certain actions.

Those who support the constitution in France are more defensive than offensive in their advocacy. They say it is simply a way to make the Union a more lasting one and to insure certain rights and roles, explained, they say, in the several hundred pages of the text. The advocates try to assure a nervous French public that the constitution will not interfere with labor benefits and other “social” protections.

Those who want to see the filibuster ended mostly argue that the majority should get a chance to rule, unencumbered by the minority or minorities. That is a sound argument if it were not for the public policy here in the US strongly supporting the rights of minorities in the face of majorities who want to deny those minorities certain rights.

Our forefathers who drafted the constitution, and those charged with protecting it and its institutions like the Senate have done a remarkably good job. They moved us from a slave-owning nation to one committed in public policy to equality. But the same forces that created slavery in the first place are not necessarily dead and we will always need, it seems to me, to be able to bend over backwards in order to keep majority rule in check.

The filibuster capability is a marvel in allowing that to happen.

Now, it is true that it can be used for less than good purposes. But, when it is, we look to our courts to help straighten out the damage done.

Inbetween the judicially-correctable and the clearly majority-controlled decisions, there are ones like the votes on judicial nominees where there is more to it than a simply majority vote. This is not a dog-catcher appointment and it ought be treated with the intense scrutiny that it demands. The filibuster provides a critical check on that process.

Why change an institution? The case has simply not been made.

In France, it looks like the case has not really been made either for that constitution. If it passes, it will be a minor miracle.

If it fails, it will be in large part because the execution of the whole process has been handled in a manner reminiscent of various French kings. Here, subjects, take it or leave it. Several hundred pages is simply too much to take on board without a clear reason to process it and vote for it. The supporters – the government and others – have not provided that rationale.

It is a shame that the text is as long as it is.

It is a shame that the execution of the process has been so bad.

It is a shame that a vital institution – the European Union – is going to suffer in important ways and threatened, at least, at its very foundation.

So, the votes this week are votes at that foundation level. The foundation of a system that respects minority interests and provides a time-tested largely positive check on power in the US Senate and the foundation of another system that is crucial to the future of France and which is being attacked inadvertently by shocking incompetence.

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