One man

Former state senator John Scott of St. Louis used to remind colleagues during his senate days that “One man with courage constitutes a majority.” Various sources attribute that quote to Andrew Jackson or to Thomas Jefferson, whose comment that “One man with courage is a majority” is a light variation.

Every now and then those of us who cover the Senate see that principle come to life. It’s happening now as St. Louis Senator Jim Lembke is leading an effort to kill a bill that would benefit an estimated 23,000 Missourians.

He has two or three allies but he’s the leader of the small band.

Lembke believes that he can send a message to Washington telling Congress to quit the egregious overspending that has created a gigantic budget deficit if he keeps Missouri from accepting $81 million dollars that will give long-term unemployed Missourians another twenty weeks of benefits. He also argues that the extension will mean some people could draw benefits for 99 weeks, almost two years.

Regardless, Lembke is the majority of one and he has threatened to be a majority of one as the state budget process moves along.

There are other variations of the Jackson/Jefferson quote that Senator Scott used. The 16th century Presbyterian clergyman, John Knox (no, his greatest claim to fame is NOT that he founded a bunch of retirement villages), said, “A man with God is always in the majority.” And Henry David Thoreau remarked, “Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one.”

Lembke clearly thinks he is “more right than his neighbors.” We have not heard him proclaim yet that his majority comes from being “with God,” however.

It is not that Senator Lembke is a majority of one among 34 senators that bothers some of his colleagues and others; it is that he has assumed the role of being a majority of one among 23,000 people who are seeing hopes of another twenty weeks of benefits fade because of his position.

Observers can mull over several things as they watch his efforts.

He was elected to the Senate in 2008 by a mere 100 votes out of almost 90,000 votes cast in his district. Is that enough of a mandate that someone in his position can block benefits to 23,000 Missourians?

Does his effort to send a message to Washington about overspending have any real significance, given that the money involved in this bill would be distributed to jobless people in other states, not used to reduce the federal deficit? One fellow senator has remarked that he resents the idea that some of the money that could have been used to help Missourians will go instead to help unemployed Kansans.

We have watched the Missouri legislature for more than 35 years send messages to Washington about this or that issue. There is no empirical evidence that Washington has given a rat’s patootie what the Missouri legislature thinks it should do. If Missouri becomes the only state to reject these federal funds, will that be more convincing?

Washington seems to have gotten a pretty good message already from the 2010 congressional elections. Will it matter that one state senator from Missouri thinks his message will be even more convincing?

The Missouri Senate does have the power to cut off debate and immediately vote on an issue. It’s a parliamentary move called “moving the previous question.” But the senate uses that power sparingly because senators are aware that the Golden Rule applies in senate debate–and they do not want to have done unto them what they have done unto others. Unless it is done unto the minority. There have been several times in recent years when a PQ has been called but (without looking at the list which is at the capitol and we’re at our main office), it has never been called on a member of the majority party. And Lembke is a member of the majority party.

The filibuster is a respected parliamentary technique designed to keep the majority from running over the minority. It becomes more effective when time runs short for a decision on an issue. Senators come under increasing pressure to either drop the bill from consideration or compromise with opponents as filibusters continue. If there is no compromise possible, the PQ becomes an increasingly important possibility.

Then there is next year, an election year. Will the 23,000 affected Missourians and their friends and relatives retaliate at the polls, not only against Lembke but against his party? Lembke’s message to Washington also is a message to others. Which is most important, politically?

For Joe and Josephine Missouri, this is probably not a matter that is likely to consume much of their attention–unless Joe or Josephine is among the 23,000. But for the political junkies at the senate press table, this kind of political chemistry test is interesting drama.

Our legislators are gone for a week of spring break. But that doesn’t mean they’re not talking among themselves about whether they can allow Lembke’s majority of one to deny 23,000 people throughout the other 33 congressional districts continued jobless benefits in a slowly-recovering economy.

It’s not just politics. It’s people, people with their needs and their purposes. In this case the needs of
23,000 do not match the purposes of one.

What we are seeing is an example of another famous quotation. Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons on November 11, 1947 remarked, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

This is one of those times when we’re seeing that observation played out right in front of us.

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