Politics: November 2009 Archives

I was "chasing a rabbit," looking for info on how Oklahoma apportioned seats in the State Legislature among counties prior to a 1964 Federal court mandate (which to this day overrules the text of our State Constitution).

What I found was a set of newsletters on the University of Arizona website by Democratic U. S. Rep. Morris K. Udall. These newsletters -- essays on various hot topics of the day -- were sent over the course of his thirty-year congressional career to a mailing list of his constituents (a 1967 letter mentions about 20,000 of them who had opted in to the list at some point).

The first letter I found had to do with three landmark U. S. Supreme Court decisions that together forced states to apportion both houses of the legislature into districts of roughly equal population: Baker v. Carr (1962), Wesberry v. Sanders (1963), and Reynolds v. Sims and Lucas v. Colorado General Assembly (1964):

Congressman's Report: October 14, 1964 -- Reapportionment--I: One Man, One Vote . . . That's All She Wrote!

A second letter on the same topic outlined the impasse in Congress between those who supported the states complying with these decisions and those who felt the Warren Court had overreached, particularly in the third decision, and a constitutional amendment was in order to allow states the right to consider other factors in apportioning legislative seats, just as the U. S. Constitutional Convention had done in seeking to balance the concerns of large and small states.

Congressman's Report: December 11, 1964 -- Reapportionment--II: Where Do We Go From Here?

Udall presents the reasonable arguments put forward by those who objected to the Court's rulings, explains why their proposed constitutional amendment won't get anywhere, and proposes a compromise that he hopes will satisfy both sides.

Another report of note, this time on the Electoral College:

Congressman's Report, Vol. VII, No. 2: August 28, 1968 -- The Electoral College Is Flunking Out

Udall looks ahead to the close three-way race developing between Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace (the last third-party candidate to have some of his electors elected by popular vote). Udall outlines a nightmare scenario in which no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote and then the House, voting by state, doesn't give a majority to any candidate. Udall proposes that candidates for Congress pledge to the voters that, should the election end up in the House, they will vote for whichever candidate wins the largest national popular vote, regardless of party. In the end, Nixon managed an electoral vote majority, despite only a narrow plurality of the popular vote.  (It could be said that, contrary to Udall's fears, the electoral vote saved us from an uncertain conclusion resulting from no candidate having a majority of the popular vote.)

Reading these letters, it's easy to understand Udall's appeal to many voters. He wrote clearly, took his readers' intelligence for granted, injected a bit of humor from time to time, explained both sides of an issue, and often offered a compromise that he hoped would satisfy the concerns of both sides. In 1976, when he was one of about  a dozen candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, my pun- and Pogo-loving grandma supported Udall in the Arkansas primary. The title of his autobiography was Too Funny to Be President.

Here's the best I've read so far, and the one with the most enduring value even in the age of e-mail:

Congressman's Report, Vol. VI, No. 1: January 20, 1967 -- The Right to Write: Some Suggestions on Writing Your Congressman

Some of the best suggestions are some that are still often violated today:

** Write your own views -- not someone else's. A personal letter is far better than a form letter or signature on a petition. Many people will sign a petition without reading it just to avoid offending the circulator; form letters are readily recognizable -- they usually arrive in batches -- and usually register the sentiments of the person or lobbying group preparing the form. I regret to report that form letters often receive form replies. Anyway, I usually know what the major lobbying groups are saying, but I don't often know of your experiences and observations, or what the proposed bill will do to and for you. And I often am not fully aware of new conditions and developments in Arizona. A sincere, well-thought-out letter from you can help fill this gap.

** Give your reasons for taking a stand. Statements like "Vote against H.R. 100; I'm bitterly opposed" don't help me much. But a letter which says "I'm a small hardware dealer, and H.R. 100 will put me out of business for the following reasons ... " tells me a lot more. Maybe I didn't know all the effects of the bill, and your letter will help me understand what it means to an important segment of my constituency.

** Don't make threats or promises. Congressmen usually want to do the popular thing, but this is not their only motivation; nearly all the Members I know want, most of all, to do what is best for the country. Occasionally a letter will conclude by saying, "If you vote for this monstrous bill, I'll do everything in my power to defeat you in the next election." A writer has the privilege of making such assertions, of course, but they rarely intimidate a conscientious Member, and they may generate an adverse reaction. He would rather know why you feel so strongly. The reasons may change his mind; the threat probably won't.

** Don't berate your congressman. You can't hope to persuade him of your position by calling him names. If you disagree with him, give reasons for your disagreement. Try to keep the dialogue open.

** Don't pretend to wield vast political influence. Write your congressman as an individual -- not as a self-appointed spokesman for your neighborhood, community or industry. Unsupported claims to political influence will only cast doubt upon the views you express.

** Don't become a constant "pen pal." In a newsletter appealing for more constituent mail I don't want to discourage letters, but quality, rather than quantity, is what counts. Write again and again if you feel like it, but don't try to instruct your congressman on every issue that comes up. And don't nag at him if his votes do not match your precise thinking every time. Remember, he has to consider all his constituents and all points of view. Also, keep in mind that one of the pet peeves on Capitol Hill is the "pen pal" who weights the mail down every few days with long tomes on every conceivable subject. 

I'm certain there are dozens of issues of the day on which I would have disagreed with Mo Udall -- his vote for Speaker, for a start -- but you have to admire a writer and thinker of his caliber.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Politics category from November 2009.

Politics: August 2009 is the previous archive.

Politics: December 2009 is the next archive.

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