My Turn: Democracy loses as House makes – then unmakes – history

For the Monitor
Sunday, January 10, 2016
It would have been a fine political drama if democracy itself had not been under assault.

For 20 minutes on Thursday, the New Hampshire House and Senate made history by becoming the first Republican-controlled Legislature to call for a constitutional amendment ending unlimited spending in elections. Cheers were heard and high-fives exchanged in the House gallery and in front of TVs around the state, where campaign reform advocates had gathered to watch the drama unfold.

Then the House of Representatives’ voting machines went down.

Twenty minutes later, when the machines came back online, dozens of House Republicans had reversed themselves in a reconsideration vote – “unmaking” history and creating a gaping controversy instead.

In a year when life-and-death matters are pending before the General Court, SB 136 should have been a quick and easy win. Polls show 96 percent of citizens think big money has too much sway over American elections and 83 percent favor a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to unlimited spending in elections.

In fulfillment of their concerns, the 2014 elections set a new record for New Hampshire as voters faced a barrage of negative TV attacks in what quickly became the dirtiest, most expensive election in state history. According to the Open Democracy Index, fully $106 million was spent in that campaign, much if it by shadowy out-of-state groups with sympathetic-sounding names and undisclosed funding sources.

In protest, 69 New Hampshire towns passed warrant articles at town meeting calling for a constitutional amendment to end unlimited spending and instructing their state legislators to do the same. Anger about the influence of campaign contributors has served as jet fuel for the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And since January 2014, thousands of Granite Staters, inspired by legendary reformer Doris “Granny D” Haddock, have taken to the streets in a cross-partisan “New Hampshire Rebellion” against big money in politics, logging 30,000 miles collectively for their cause.

Their efforts were not lost on the state Senate.

When SB 136 came up for a vote in the Senate last March, all 24 senators voted yes. The bill they approved did not cost taxpayers a cent. Instead, it simply affirmed “the need for a U.S. Constitutional Amendment to address the Citizens United ruling . . . while protecting the First Amendment” – consistent with similar measures passed in 16 other states – and created a study committee to evaluate the various amendment proposals pending in Congress.

For a moment on Thursday, the House was also on board. Spurred on by calls and emails from their constituents, 34 House Republicans joined the Democratic caucus in voting to pass SB 136.

But that was apparently too much democracy for House leadership. When a “Motion to Reconsider” was made to shore up the vote, the House voting machines mysteriously went down – a first, according to State House officials. The 20-minute pause and roll call vote that followed brought out the finest in old-fashioned wheeling and dealing by House leadership, as members left their seats to corral the votes of their colleagues, contrary to House protocol. When the final roll was taken, more than a dozen Republican representatives had switched their votes and SB 136 failed.

The drama exposed an aspect of state lawmaking that is little known to citizens and mercifully rare.

According to state representatives present on the House floor, leadership used the extra time to “twist arms” and cajole a change of vote. Other representatives reported that they are only allowed to “vote their conscience” against the wishes of House leadership three times – and they had already cashed in their chits. One representative even said he feared reprisals from leadership, such as being stripped of his committee assignments if he voted the way his constituents had asked him to vote.

As Granite Staters, we do not agree on every issue before the General Court. But all of us can agree that a democratic process is essential where the state Legislature is concerned. When democracy is lacking from legislative debate – especially over democratic reforms whose sole purpose is to shore up representative government in Washington – the absence is particularly felt.

Democracy was not on display in the House chambers on Thursday. The people of New Hampshire deserve an explanation – and a change of course – from House leadership if we are to have confidence in the institutions of state government. Without that, how can we ever hope that the life-and-death matters pending in Concord will be fairly and adequately addressed?

(Daniel Weeks is executive director of Open Democracy, a Concord-based nonpartisan organization that works for transparent and accountable governance.)