Good Governance

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 12-26-2021

A fascinating event took place this past week; it wasn’t Senator Manchin stating that he would not support the multi-trillion dollar, all-in-one bill that had been beating around Washington for the last year, though that was related. What was fascinating was how, within seconds of his decision there were a host of articles from all the major media voices, all saying the same thing: Senator Manchin’s decision was a threat to the very idea of democracy; "Democracy is hanging by a thread,” a threat to the “Future of American Democracy,” “we’re a shell of a democracy.”

What did Senator Manchin really do?

He decided he would not support, not vote for, a piece of legislation that he could not defend to his constituents.

Democracy. Democracy is, literally, rule by the people (the “demos”). In a general sense, and only in a general sense, we are a democracy. But, unless you’re actually voting on legislation somewhere, you’re not ruling. A literal democracy exists where a general assembly is held and every adult in the community has a say, a vote. This is possible if there are only several hundred voters and the community is physically small enough that they can get together and debate and vote. As soon as the number of voters becomes unwieldily (perhaps one thousand) or the community is physically so big that meeting is difficult, democracy becomes difficult, and with more growth soon becomes impossible.

The answer then, is to send an agent, a representative. This is what exists at every level of the United States - in towns and cities, in states, and in the federal government: people come together, select someone to represent them, and then cart them off to the town hall, state capital or to Washington to do their - the people’s - bidding.

This is what Senator Manchin is doing.

But there’s more to it, a good deal more.

There are systems by which the bidding of the people becomes orders from the government, at every level. Towns have charters, states and the federal government have constitutions. These documents, and associated rules and amendments, describe the specifics steps that need to be taken to turn an idea into a law and then into specific orders for various departments to execute. And the real, day-to-day mechanism for doing this sort of thing - and this has been so for 2500 years in any number of republics - is the authorizing expenditures and then appropriating money.

Sanity would suggest that before money is set aside to be spent on a given idea, that our agents, our representatives (Congressmen and Senators), look at the idea, and then weigh whether it’s a good idea or not, and whether, when held up to all the other ideas people have, whether this particular idea is worth the money. This is done in every household in the country - buy a new car or buy groceries and a new hot-water heater. And, this process, the debating of each idea, then comparing it to other ideas, is, at the mechanical level, what Congress - the House and Senate - are supposed to do; it’s their number one job, creating an annual budget, deciding what the executive is going to do (the executive is not supposed to decide what is going to be done, the executive branch simply “executes” what Congress directs). Congress then authorizes and appropriates money to do these carious things. And in an attempt to ensure no one is spending money foolishly, money is authorized - made a legal fact - by the Senate, but no money is appropriated - set aside specifically to be spent on a specific thing - until the House of Representatives has appropriated money for that act. Mom says: “we need a new refrigerator” and then dad sets aside the cash to buy it. Both need to agree.

To do this there are a host of committees in both houses of Congress who are supposed to meet and debate, to make sure the citizenry get what’s needed but at the same time ensure that their money - our money - is well spent.

When they fail to do this, when they fail to do their primary job - debate on and pass the budget, we - the nation - end up with these gigantic pieces of legislation - in this case some 2,000 pages long - that the Speaker of the House references when she wants pieces of legislation passed that have not been fully written.

Every time you see the word “omnibus” in front of “bill” or “legislation,” this really means that Congress, rather than looking at each element of a grand idea and weighing each on its merits, has packaged the entire thing into a single, huge package and, rather than discussing each element, came up with a single gigantic spending bill for the next year. What they have really done is failed to do their job.

And what Senator Manchin said was that he cannot explain to his constituents exactly what all this huge, multi-trillion (with a “T”) piece of legislation is actually going to do and therefore he cannot defend it to his constituents.

This is what the media is calling a threat to democracy.

In the end, a political system moves in just one of two directions: either it believes in and seeks truth and justice (see the preamble of the Constitution) or it believes in and seeks power. This has been born out time and time again over the last 6,000 years. To suggest that the actions of Senator Manchin, in failing to follow the dictates of the Democratic Party, and to instead listen to his constituents and his conscience, threatens democracy is to stand the truth on its head.

What Senator Manchin in fact did last week was to defend the nation.

In the Nicomachean Ethics (named for Aristotle’s son Nicomachus), Aristotle suggests that: “…by doing just acts we become just, and by doing acts of temperance and courage we become temperate and courageous. This is attested, too, by what occurs in states; Legislators make their citizens good by training; i.e., this is the wish of all legislators, and those who do not succeed in this miss their aim, and it is this that distinguishes a good from a bad constitution.”

Legislators who act with temperance and courage and justice… and prudence… Aristotle is naming the four virtues as understood by the ancient Greeks, are good legislators. Those who fail to so act are bad legislators.

Senator Manchin acted in concert with the classic virtues, he acted virtuously. This is good governance. This is the type of behavior that will save the nation, this is the sort of behavior we hope to see in every elected official in every generation.

Well done, Senator Manchin.