Every so often a member of Congress says something that literally leaves me speechless. Such was my reaction when a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Major Owens (D.-N.Y.), took to the House floor to make the case for extending the Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act started with a noble purpose -- to destroy the barriers erected during the mid-20th century to deter minorities from voting. When lawmakers sing its praises, they usually cite the need to end “persistent and purposeful discrimination through literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation, threats and violence” and emphasize that “the right to vote is the foundation of our democracy.”
But, inexplicably, Owens ignored this script and cited the minority representation schemes in several very questionable countries -- he described them as “democracies” -- to justify his support for the law’s reauthorization. The “democracies” he had in mind? Kosovo, Burundi and, believe it or not, Iran.
“In Iran,” he said approvingly, “they have a provision which allows for the representation of Armenians and Jews. In Burundi, the Tutsi minority is guaranteed 40 percent of the seats in parliament.” And there is a mandate in Kosovo’s constitution which guarantees representation to the minority Serb population, who, he insisted, “need to be represented.” In Iraq, he added, we have to “make certain we have something similar to a Voting Rights Act to guarantee representation for all the minorities in Iraq.” These group entitlements to legislative representation are “practical provisions” because they “bring people to the table and involve them in the process.”
Owens’ rationalization of hard racial set-asides for legislatures offers a revealing glimpse into the minds of some of the Voting Rights Act’s loudest defenders. After four decades of endless litigation, race is now the most powerful tool in the arsenals of those who draw congressional district lines. Many, such as Owens, openly assert that the racial makeup of legislatures should reflect the surrounding population and see the Voting Rights Act as the vehicle for achieving overt racial quotas.
This is a far cry from the law’s original goal of removing the legal and physical impediments to voting and letting the political chips fall where they may.
And how can Owens cite such repressive regimes as Iran, Kosovo and Burundi as paragons of constitutional democracy worthy of emulation?
The definitive assessment of freedom worldwide compiled by Freedom House places Kosovo and Iran squarely among the world’s most oppressive regimes. Burundi, moreover, merits only a slightly higher rating. Besides overt political repression, the one thing these regimes share is a fondness for racial, ethnic and gender quotas in their legislatures.
The many conservative House members who support the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act should recognize that liberal allies such as Rep. Owens see it as a blunt means to accomplish some very undemocratic ends.
Bush Shows Courage on Stem Cells
President Bush’s decision to veto legislation that would allow taxpayer dollars to be used for embryonic stem cell research was courageous. A few observations are in order:
Rather than transmit the veto to Congress in a sheepish manner late on a Friday afternoon, Bush seized upon the opportunity to educate the public on an issue of tremendous moral significance. It was a textbook example of a president using his bully pulpit to persuade and lead.
The veto-signing ceremony was raucous and celebratory, interrupted 11 times by enthusiastic applause. The president’s veto message, in fact, ranks among his most eloquent speeches -- a compelling summation of his position, expressed in a sophisticated moral tone that even his most severe critics must respect.
Bush put a human face on this complicated ethical issue by inviting “snowflake” babies and their parents to the event. These children were created for in vitro fertilization, but they remained unused after fertility treatments. Fortunately, rather than being discarded, they were adopted by their parents while still in a frozen embryonic state. Pointing to them, Bush made one of the most memorable statements of his presidency: “These boys and girls are not spare parts.”
Bush evoked the spirit of Thomas Jefferson when he highlighted an overlooked but important moral aspect of this issue. The legislation was unacceptable, he said, because it would compel American taxpayers for the first time to “fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos.” This recalled Jefferson’s dictum: “It is tyrannical to compel a man to pay for the promulgation of ideas with which he does not agree.”