This month a dozen Republican senators – Richard Burr, Shelley Capito, Susan Collins, Cynthia Lummis, Mitt Romney, Dan Sullivan, Rob Portman, Lisa Murkowski, Thom Tillis, Pat Toomey, Roy Blunt, and Todd Young joined all 50 of their Democratic colleagues to vote to proceed to a final vote on the ill-named Respect for Marriage Act.
Leaving aside its underlying substance – the legislation essentially extends federal protections to same-sex marriage while exposing religious-adjacent organizations to government and private party litigation – what makes the legislation and those who voted for it worth noting is the process by which it is about to become law.
This legislation was first introduced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It is ostensibly designed to prevent the Supreme Court from revisiting its 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the decision in which the Supreme Court truncated an ongoing electoral, political, and legislative effort by the citizens of these United States to decide how to address same-sex marriage.
Parenthetically, it is worth noting that in pretty much every place where the idea of such unions was put to the voters (including noted conservative enclaves, like California), it failed.
It is no surprise, therefore, that after the legislation passed the House this Summer, those Senate Republicans who intended to vote for it made it clear that they would prefer to vote on the question in the lame-duck sessions of Congress – well after any voters might take umbrage with their nominal representatives’ embrace of same-sex unions.
The legislators’ concern over how citizens might respond to the vote was so great that one – retiring (!) Mr. Toomey – refused to say how he intended to vote as recently as the day before the vote to proceed.
At least one of the senators in question – Mrs. Murkowski – had a sharply contested re-election effort (she has only recently edged ahead of her rival through the ranked-choice voting process). It certainly seems possible that her vote to proceed with the Respect for Marriage Act would have become an issue if it had become known to voters.
Mrs. Murkowski – and the eleven Republican colleagues who went along with the deeply cynical plan to evade voter scrutiny of their votes – knew that support for this legislation would cost them votes. So, they chose to hide those votes as best they could by postponing to the lame duck – the session most temporally distant from a representative’s next contact with voters.
There has been a lot of talk recently about threats to democracy. The real threat to actual workaday democracy is when representatives explicitly and knowingly engage in legislation subterfuge so that they can vote for their own personal preferences rather than represent the will of the voters. The Republican senators’ desire to delay the vote until the lame duck was a transparent attempt to evade and avoid voting for the preferences of those they represent.
That seems like a legitimate threat to democracy.
So, the next time you read or hear the phrase “threat to democracy”, you might want to reflect on the very real possibility that the gravest and most immediate threat to democracy is your own representative in Congress.