By Eugene Robinson
Friday, June 23, 2006
Once in a while the fog machine that's kept on "high" around here to obscure everyone's real intentions breaks down. There's always a mad rush to crank it up again, but for the briefest moment we can see our elected representatives for what they really are, not what they pretend to be. Wednesday we had one of those rare high-definition moments, when the House Republican caucus defied its leaders and refused to back renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
That tells you about all you need to know, doesn't it?
Speaker Dennis Hastert was ready to move forward with a feel-good, election-year extension of the landmark 1965 act that guaranteed voting rights for African Americans disenfranchised by Jim Crow law and custom in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia. In 1975 the act was expanded to cover Alaska, Texas and Arizona, where citizens with limited command of English -- Latinos, mostly -- were being treated as if they were black folks in the South.
Hastert understood that reauthorizing the act would be useful in efforts to convince voters that the Republican Party as presently constituted is just ultraconservative, not actually racist. But Hastert was sandbagged by fellow Republicans who rebelled in a private caucus meeting Wednesday. The renewal probably could have won easy approval on the House floor, since Democrats would have voted for it, but Hastert's policy is to not bring out any bill that lacks majority support from Republicans, so he had no choice but to yank it.
So much for the erstwhile "party of Lincoln."
In what was described as a contentious caucus meeting, Southern Republicans complained that their states were being singled out by the act, which was originally intended to do away with the poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures that were used to deprive black voters of their rights during the Jim Crow era. Having grown up in South Carolina during the "last throes" (to quote Dick Cheney in another context) of racial segregation, I can testify that the states in question went far out of their way to earn the enhanced scrutiny the Voting Rights Act forces them to endure.
Most members of Congress agree, and there probably would have been no problem if other members of the caucus hadn't raised a separate issue: the act's requirement that bilingual ballots be made available in localities where significant numbers of voters speak a language other than English.
Hmmm. Let me take a wild guess: Any chance the issue might be voters who speak, say, Spanish? Any chance this is just a warm-up for the rabid demagoguery we're going to hear from Republicans on the immigration issue this fall?
So there we have it. In one breathtaking moment of clarity, we see that a significant portion of the House Republican caucus is determined to deep-six, or at least fatally weaken, a landmark law designed to make it possible for the nation's largest minority groups to exercise their franchise at the polls -- and designed to make it difficult for anyone with nefarious intent to keep these minority citizens from voting.
Decades ago the Republican Party built its "solid South" with thinly disguised, and sometimes blatant, appeals to white racist voters who felt threatened by blacks. Now Republicans seem to have decided to paint Latinos as the new menace and buenos días as a mortal threat.
I have argued several times that African Americans and Latinos have more to unite us than divide us and that we had better find ways to stand together or we will perish separately. I rest my case. (For the moment, at least.) Yes, even though a nonpartisan blue-ribbon commission concluded that there are concrete reasons for the Voting Rights Act to be renewed, it's true that the value of this 41-year-old piece of legislation is partly symbolic. And it's also true that the South of today is not the South of my youth. Congress is under no real time pressure, since no portion of the act expires until next year. Hastert surely will find some way to quash this little GOP revolt and get the act extended.
That will be a good thing when it happens, but it won't be enough. While Congress is on the subject of voting rights and equal access to the polls, our representatives ought to take a serious look at the irregularities that marred the presidential vote in Florida in 2000 and the allegations of unfair voting procedures in Ohio in 2004.
This Congress won't, though, since whatever happened in Florida and Ohio ended up electing George W. Bush. The fog machine will be up and running again before you know it.