Jenny Beth Martin: Act Quickly, But Let Congress Have a Serious Debate

House Chamber AP PhotoSusan Walsh
AP/Susan Walsh

In America, ware known for having thoughtful discussions about painful topics. But as the federal, state, and even municipal governments around the country are making decisions and taking actions to respond to the threat of the coronavirus, I can’t help but wonder – when did I fall asleep in America and wake up elsewhere?

For instance, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pulled together a 1,432-page coronavirus emergency response “stimulus” bill that includes items totally unrelated to the public health crisis. Se wrote it secretly, without benefit of any public hearings, witness testimony, markup sessions, or debate on the floor of the House. It includes $35 million for the Kennedy Center in Washington; requires same-day voter registration; makes airlines cut their carbon footprint in half by 2050; and eliminates the U.S. Postal Service’s debt.

That just adds to my confusion.

The American Experiment, begun with the “shot heard ‘round the world,” and formalized with the constitutional convention in Philadelphia a dozen years later, turned the world upside down because it, for the first time, declared boldly that all men were created equal; that they were endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights; that the purpose of government was to secure those rights; and that the only legitimate and just government was a government that derived its power from the consent of the governed.

The people were sovereign, and our Constitution established a government of limited and enumerated powers – and, importantly, any power not expressly given to the federal government was reserved to the states, and to the people.

Since the ratification of that Constitution close to two-and-a-half centuries ago, we have had representative government, where we choose via regular elections the leaders who will make decisions on our behalf, after discussion and debate in the two houses of Congress. 

Alexander Hamilton said at the New York state convention on the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, “Here, sir, the people govern; here they act by their immediate representatives.”

Yet, faced with the novel coronavirus and the threat it poses to us, our representatives in the Congress and elsewhere have seemingly forgotten that.

Where they should be arguing over the pros and cons of various courses of action, they have chosen instead to avoid debate and simply to acquiesce to the directives of medical experts.

I understand the motivations of the medical experts. It is to avoid what they fear will be a medical calamity. But what good does it do to avoid the medical calamity, if the cost is an even more disastrous economic and financial calamity – and of our own making, at that?

An exercise in the House of Representatives ten days ago is a case in point. After being told early in the week that negotiations for coronavirus funding would take place between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over the particulars, everyone else was shut out of the processIt wasn’t just our lowly Representatives that were shut out – even powerful committee chairmen were left in the dark.

Late that Friday evening, the two finally came to agreement, and the bill was brought forward for a voteand a perfunctory debate. 

Since the bill was brought to the floor of the House under suspension of the rules, the debate was limited to 40 minutes – 20 minutes for those in support of the bill, and 20 minutes for those opposed. 

But very few people knew what was in the bill. It had been released less than an hour before it was put on the floor. The Congressional Budget Office hadn’t had time to score it, so no one knew how much it would cost. 

Consequently, the 40 minutes of debate shrank to just 20 minutes or so – and then, without anyone even knowing how much the bill would cost the American taxpayer, or how much harm it might do to our economy, it was overwhelmingly passed, with just 40 representatives voting against.

The bill was so hastily drafted that it needed a “technical corrections” bill to fix its errors – “corrections” that were almost half again as long as the original text.

This is not what the Framers envisioned. 

The Framers designed the Constitution for exactly this kind of emergency – to protect liberty as the government makes decisions such as the ones we face with the coronavirus crisis. 

We do that best as a result of vigorous discussion and debate, giving all sides an opportunity to make their arguments even as they consider other alternatives. 

Speaker Pelosi, bring the House back into session to do the people’s work with a vigorous discussion. Stop trying to use this crisis to legitimize your power grab, and stay focused on the task at hand – responding to the public health emergency posed by the coronavirus, and the economic calamity imposed on us by the government’s response to it. 

Let the other 434 Representatives argue over alternatives, as they should. It’s their job.

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