It borders on the banal to observe that the aggregate voting record of Congress is becoming more remote from the aggregate views of the people.
If a variety of Louis Harris, Peter Hart, and other pollsters are to be believed, the public disagrees with the plethora of congressional votes recently that favor Big Oil, less law enforcement for economic crimes, subsidies for business, and less concern for consumer, worker, and environmental rights.
This gap between Congress and the people results from the resurgence in corporate lobbying anmd campaign money. Now comes a fresh proposal out of Missouri to bring public opinion to Congress with a sharper political edge.
Tom Ryan, a young public interest lawyer in St. Louis, and congressman Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., have recommended that a National Advisory Referendum on nationally significant issues be placed on the ballot at each general election. Gephardt plans to introduce such legislation shortly in the House of Representatives with bipartisan sponsorship.
What worries Gephardt is the increasing alienation of the voter; the turnout in the 1978 congressional election, he bemoans, was only 34 percent. He sights a Cambridge Survey Research poll which found that “59 percent agreed with the statement, ‘I don’t think public officials care much what people like me think.'”
Here is how the Ryan-Gephardt plan would work: A unit of Congress would be created to recommend issues to be presented to the voters. The issues would be chosen with the participation of a citizens advisory committee and public hearings held around the country. Congress as a whole would vote on the recommendations and they would then be placed on the ballot. A voters’ guide on the issues, pro and con, would be distributed for voters to ponder and debate.
The referenda would not be binding on the Congress, but if not acted upon, the issues would be put on the ballot after a reasonable time.
In those two-dozen states where there is a binding referendum provision in the state constitution, use of this direct democracy instrument has increased voter interest and turnout at the election booths.
Supporters of a binding national referendum system may think that the National Advisory Referendum is a weak alternative. But perhaps Congress has to learn in stages about how to involve the people in the shaping of public policy. A binding referendum bill was proposed by former Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D., four years ago. Valuable hearings were held; however, the legislation went nowhere.
Gephardt himself represents the kind of “swing” legislator who might like to vote his conscience more often if he could refer the special interests to the results of an advisory referendum. In 1979, he voted for measures to restrict consumer groups from receiving expenses incurred in representing, before the Department of Energy, the people who pay all the energy bills, thereby leaving the regulators to face only the demands of the oil companies.
He also voted against a small program to improve existing small claims courts and other mechanisms by which consumers and tenants can achieve justice for their grievances, promptly and inexpensively.
Would Gephardt and other legislators have voted differently if an advisory referendum on improving consumers’ access to the law had received strong public support? It would be enlightening to find out.
Readers interested in obtaining information about national referenda can write to Initiative America, 606 Third St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.