Over the past year, Congress has seemed to be out of control. From health care to global warming to stimulus spending, corporate bailouts, deficits, federal debt and beyond, Congressional leaders have been dismissive of alternative views, insisting that they know best. They have responded to critics with name-calling, calling them everything from “yahoos,” to “Nazis,” and “tea baggers.”
This anti-democratic attitude has veered towards elitist authoritarianism, closer to abuses we see in countries like Venezuela.
But there is a mechanism within our political system to deal with such a runaway Congress: the Right of Recall. Nine states already have laws on the books providing for Recall of members of Congress: Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. These 9 states suffer 12 incumbent Senators who are members of the runaway Congressional majority not up for reelection in 2010.
For example, the New Jersey state constitution provides:
“The people reserve unto themselves the power to recall, after at least one year of service, any elected official in this State or representing this State in the United States Congress.”
Tea party activists in that state, in fact, have already filed to circulate recall petitions regarding Sen. Robert Menendez. But the former New Jersey Secretary of State took the position that such Recall of members of Congress is not authorized under the U.S. Constitution. Grassroots activists in Louisiana have similarly already filed for Recall of Senator Mary Landrieu, and the circulation of Recall petitions there has been authorized. Exercising this existing statutory Right of Recall in these 9 states could potentially reverse majority control in the Senate this year. (For more information on Right to Recall go to RecallCongressNow.org ).
We saw this recall process at work in California in 2003, where the electorate became disgusted with the then-recently-reelected Democratic Governor, Gray Davis. They voted overwhelmingly to remove him from office in a recall election, and replaced him with their current governor: Arnold Schwarzenegger. A total of 18 states provide for the recall of elected state officials, including the above 9.
States without the Right of Recall for members of Congress can also change their laws to adopt it. In states with the right to initiative, this can be done by a vote of the people after circulating petitions to put the change on the ballot.
What the current Congress is showing is that our representatives can no longer be trusted to spend 2-6 years in office without ongoing democratic accountability. Today’s Congressional majority is threatening to dump a load of bad legislation on the country despite the public’s opposition, daring us to try to clean it up later. Only a Right of Recall can prevent such abuses in the future.
The Right of Recall also counters the growing problem of voter fraud. If voters feel that an election was subject to too many irregularities in how it was conducted or in how the votes were counted, they can circulate Recall petitions for a new election, rather than waiting for the next scheduled election. Recall would also counter a growing problem of campaign fraud, where a candidate claims to be a reliable conservative on some or all issues, then goes to Congress and votes with the liberal left. Such misrepresentation can be countered with a recall election.
For these reasons, every state should adopt the Right of Recall for its voters. The constitutionality of recall for members of Congress adopted under state law would ultimately have to be decided in the courts. Or the people could definitively decide the issue themselves through a constitutional amendment, or by electing a Congress that would adopt a federal statute authorizing each state to adopt such a Right of Recall.
Peter Ferrara is General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU). He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush. A report on the Right of Recall is available at the ACRU Web site (www.RecallCongressNow.org), which will be updated as more information becomes available.