Democracy As Participatory Sport

By Ben G. Price

I was in Washington D.C. on Thursday, March 29th. It was a blustery, rainy gray day. When I left my home in Pennsylvania that morning my wife asked me "you’re not going to get arrested, are you?" She had two good reasons for asking. I had been arrested three times over the past year for speaking out in the capitol rotunda for campaign finance reform (CFR). And this time she was going with me.

But I was going to Washington to join Doris Haddock, better known as "Granny D," as she continued her 24-hour vigil over the senate. Beginning on March 19th, while the 100 senators debated the McCain-Feingold bill that would ban soft money and its corrupting influence, Granny D walked as she had before to emphasize her outrage over the selling of democracy by its supposed enactors.She had walked 3,200 miles to demonstrate her commitment to reform; this time she was encircling the capitol, day and night, throughout the two weeks of debate.

When we caught up with her, we were very excited to talk with her about her brave campaign. At 91 years old, and with health problems that would leave me a bed-ridden complainer, Doris was out there in a cold rain, signature straw hat and feather on her head, vowing to continue her walk until the senate voted for reform.

Throughout the week and a half of debates, amendment after amendment was introduced and either tabled or voted on. At first, the prospects for McCain-Feingold seemed quite tenuous, but as the days wore on the bill survived its strongest challenges. It was altered in some unfavorable ways, particularly the increase in the allowed hard money that could be raised by candidates. But the spirit of the bill remained intact. At home I had been following the debates as closely as I could on C-SPAN. But having taken my case to the rotunda, I was beginning to feel like a soldier stacking K-rations while the battle on the front raged on. That’s when I decided to go to D.C. to walk with Granny D.

Alliance For Democracy (AfD) Co-Chair Lou Hammann and AfD Mid Atlantic National Council Member Patricia Hammann were there when Susan and I arrived. While we waited for Granny D to confer with one of the senators, we shared thoughts about the debate and caught up on old times (Lou and I shared jail cells as a result of our Democracy Brigade activities). When we rejoined Granny D on her rounds, Patricia pointedly asked her to consider ending her vigil. Wearing a truss for a weakened back, coping with asthma and emphysema, the chilly dampness had increased her ailments with a dose of bronchitis.

"WhenI started this I knew it might do me in," said Doris. "But I’m 91! What have I got to loose?"

  Senator Mitch McConnell, chief opponent of CFR, pronounced his first self-defeating gaffe when he inspired Granny D to make her cross-country trek by claiming falsely that the American people don’t care about campaign finance reform. If they do, he asked famously, "Where’s the outrage?" As events unfolded on this wet day in the capitol, his voice would quiver with surprised indignation as the full force of citizen outrage came home to roost.

It was a day weighted with portent. This was the day the opposition would pose its last serious challenge to the viability of McCain-Feingold. Under the rubric "nonseverability,"   Senators Bill Frist (R-Tenn) and John B. Breaux (D-La), sponsored an amendment that would tie the fate of the soft money ban inseparably to all amended provisions to the bill. And opponents had craftily feinted back and supported the most controversial amendments, in an effort to judicially booby trap the bill. If the Frist-Breaux amendment was adopted, opponents of McCain Feingold would join the Florida legislature in an open conspiracy to hand-over democratic processes to the whims of an ideologically skewed Supreme Court, while being able to deceive their constituents at home into believing they had voted for real reform.

Granny D and her rag tag entourage took a detour from their capitol encircling moral siege and entered the senate gallery to witness the proceedings. Luck was with us. We gained entry to the mezzanine just as Senators McCain, McConnell, and a few others were making the final arguments. Then the roll call was called.

Lou and I counted the votes as they dribbled in. He tracked the nays and I tracked the yeas on a motion to table the Frist-Breaux amendment. If  the yeas won the day, the proposal would not be considered and the biggest threat to the soft money ban would be defeated. We counted. As I watched the senators appear and disappear from the cloak room outside the chamber, the tally trickled in, running two to one for the yeas for about 15 minutes.

I sat directly behind the C-SPAN engineer and observed the two camera views from which he could choose. And I looked around at the larger picture, of senators haggling and nodding or admonishing. I thought about what was lacking in the living-room approach to democracy. Being there, I could see not only the physical smallness of the men who were deciding such large issues, I could read their eyes, sense their emotions, almost smell their sweat when the heat of the moment kicked in.

Across the gallery from me sat Granny D. After all the miles, all the footsteps, all the aching joints and all the deep commitment to change, down below, in the coliseum of the senate floor, these men would decide right now whether or not the people’s indignation had been heard. Right now, at this moment, before our eyes, these senators would vote and they would respond to the words so many brigadiers of the Democracy Brigades had spoken in the rotunda, only to be shackled and removed from democracy’s stage.

Lou and I counted. At last, the decision was in: 57 senators voted to table Frist-Breaux. 43 senators voted to keep graft and corruption. Mitch McConnell took the floor, obviously shaken and blindsided. I wanted to stand up and shout "there’s your indignation!" but had promised Susan no arrests today. McConnell had a few words to say, and I was very interested to hear them.

He tried to interest the few attentive senators in his after-the-fact analysis of what adoption of McCain-Feingold would mean. Principally, he saw it as the demise of political parties, since they could no longer control the huge slush fund known as soft money. He was uncustomarily inarticulate, resorting to headline quotable lines in which he whined that adopting McCain-Feingold is "a stunningly stupid thing to do." McConnell also announced that he had already convened meetings with his moneyed contacts to mount a legal challenge to the bill, if it is passed. "And I will be the plaintiff," he told the nearly empty chamber. McConnell spoke with a warble in his voice about the encroachment on first amendment free speech rights that McCain-Feingold posed. But he was vague on important specifics, insisting that parties were being silenced, but ignoring the cooption of political parties by corporate constituents over human ones . "I know it’s breaking new ground", he said, "but we need to find out if parties have the same constitutional right to free speech as individuals do." I wondered if in the back of his mind McConnell has a plan to incorporate political parties, knowing as he does that  corporations actually have more constitutional rights than do individuals as a result of the 1886 court opinion written by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite.

As I write this account, McCain-Feingold has yet to be voted on in amended form.That is scheduled for Monday,  April 2. Even if it is signed into law, it is an imperfect bill. It does not guarantee the primacy of citizens as sovereign in the electoral process. It simply eliminates the grossest forms of obvious impropriety in the funding of election campaigns. There is much more to do to develop real, deep democracy in this country. And it means that citizens must inconvenience themselves and createt he conditions for its creation and survival. Little steps, one at a time are needed.

Thanks, Granny D!