Quotas for the powerful

Robert Reno

July 01, 1993|By Robert Reno

THINK about it. If the United States were a truly representative, quota-free democracy, President Clinton's budget plan would already be enacted and the Btu tax would be on the books.

It's true. A majority of the House of Representatives, apportioned on the basis of one-man, one-vote, has approved the budget substantially as the president submitted it. It is the Senate, apportioned on the basis of a quota reserving disproportionate power to the least populous states and diluting the votes of the majority of Americans, that made changes a conference committee must now reconcile with the House version.

Not only that, but it was a single senator, David Boren, from the 28th largest state, Oklahoma, who happened to sit on the Finance Committee, who exercised iron veto power over the version of the budget bill that emerged from the Senate last week. Depending on what you think of Senator Boren's motives, this was the practical application of a quota reserving special powers for his friends in the oil lobby, which opposed the Btu tax, or at least for the fortunate voters of Oklahoma.

And although the budget bill was not subject to filibuster, the Senate's quota system is further strengthened by rules that permit a minority of senators to talk most major pieces of legislation to death, a process that the Republicans have promised to use freely to obstruct much of the Clinton program, the Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act, for instance. The filibuster is, pure and simple, a minority quota. It's not applied to jobs or to college admissions but to power.

The point of this discussion is the screaming hypocrisy of the savage way in which the Washington political system, including a lot of senators who pledged to vote against her, chewed up and spit out the nomination of Lani Guinier to be assistant attorney general.

A lot of people, the president included, read her scholarly writings, swooned, and said, "Oh my God, she's a quota queen." Her sin, of course, was that she'd done a lot of free-form, scholarly theorizing about how minority voters might be given a voice in the political system commensurate with their numbers. She even suggested that there might be structural remedies, some of which sounded unconventional.

The firestorm of hysteria this generated was unseemly, to say the least, and idiotic, to be truthful, because it implied not just disagreement with her views but a sense that this distinguished woman was somehow a political untouchable.

We are, let's face it, a nation riddled with quotas that apportion power and privilege in ways often as irrational as they are unfair. The Senate is but one example. Even in a perfectly apportioned legislature, the realities of campaign financing guarantee a quota of influence and access for interest groups based not on their numbers but their wealth.

The point to be made is not that Ms. Guinier's writings are a desirable blueprint for policy. And it is not that the Senate hasn't occasionally been a useful balance for some of the legislative foolishness that from time to time comes out of the House of Representatives. It is that she has been shabbily treated by a system that protects quotas that benefit the powerful even as it forbids the mere suggestion of remedial quotas for the powerless.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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