A bewildering state of democracy in the US

Thursday 05 September 2013 14.31
The democratic process in the US retains some wonderfully archaic terms and traditions
The democratic process in the US retains some wonderfully archaic terms and traditions

Brace yourselves. The lumbering colossus of the United States Congress will next week become the focus of the world’s attention as it debates whether or not to support President Obama’s resolution for military action against Syria.

A query from a colleague this week reminded me of the arcane yet intriguing procedures followed on Capitol Hill.

RTÉ's Robert Shortt looks at some archaic traditions in the US democratic process

Americans always like to remind you they come from a young country. But in some things, like the democratic process, they are actually history’s workshop. And the process here retains some wonderfully archaic terms and traditions.

The town hall meetings, which became trendy again during the first Obama election campaign, originated in the Puritan communities of New England and Chesapeake Bay –downriver from Washington. Farming communities would come together to discuss everything from land ownership to water rights.

And then there’s the voting. There’s lots of it.

In America you can find yourself voting for judges, sheriffs, school board members and the nice man or woman who collects your taxes, as well as a whole variety of local, state and congressional politicians.

A friend of mine here does a lot of academic and practical work on voting systems. He sighs at presidential election time. Because he gets lots of queries from foreign journalists asking why the world’s oldest democracy can’t run an election.

He explains how hanging chads and voter identification checks differ across this continental-sized country precisely because voting at a local level is so highly-prized as an essential part of a true democracy.

The idea that voting could be centrally controlled would be viewed by some as practically a coup d’état.

But to get back to next week’s vote on Syria. From this juncture it still looks close.

So stand by to hear terms like ‘cloture’ where senators vote to close down endless debate called a filibuster, a method of legislative obstruction where someone takes to their feet and talks endlessly.

It became popular in the US Senate in 1850s.

The record is held by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond who blustered on for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an attempt to stall the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Cloture needs 60 votes and it’s not clear that the President’s resolution has them.

And then there’s the House where considerably more of the libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats reside.

One group is suspicious of American military involvement overseas; the other reflects a more general war-weariness in the wider population.

Neither grouping is naturally inclined to support an intervention in a complicated and dangerous civil war far away.

And what makes next week’s vote all the more interesting is that the leadership of both parties has said the party whip will not be imposed.

So it’s every man and woman for themselves. The divisions over Syria exist within both parties so the endorsement by the party establishments of the President’s resolution may not be as helpful as it seems.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said this week that the debate over Syria could go on for weeks. Let’s hope not.

But you can expect this full thrashing out of the Syria question through the halls of Capitol Hill to be thrilling, at times messy, bewildering but ultimately democratic.