Topical Controversy A National Initiative Part 5

About the controversy surrounding a national initiative giving the public a vote on matters of government legislation.




Issue: Can the public be trusted to enact laws without nightmarish consequences?

Con: Imagine an initiative forcing Congress to balance the budget immediately, which would cause national economic catastrophe. Or imagine what would happen if the speed limit were raised to 90 mph. What if health nuts outlawed the sale of junk food? The people might go on a mammoth lawmaking binge with disastrous results.

Pro: Involved people are politically sophisticated enough not to enact bad or silly laws. With government as close as the end of his voting pencil, the voter becomes more careful. Experience with state initiatives tells us that people tend to be judicious. In the 23 states authorizing initiatives, only 500 laws have been passed in 80 years. Most measures never make it to the ballot because the system is set up to sift out the bizarre and frivolous bills without much backing. Any bad law can be repealed in the courts, and the initiative amendment could give Congress the power to overturn bad decisions by a certain majority. Behind what you say lies an elitist distrust of the people, who, when appealed to correctly, will vote rationally.

Sen. James Abourezk: "The initiative process, unique among our democratic rights, is founded on the belief that the citizens of this country are indeed as competent to enact legislation as we are to elect public officials to represent us."

Con: We aren't saying that the people are stupid, just that it is impossible to make a decision on every complicated issue. It's no more stupid to give congressmen the authority to enact laws for us than it is to pay garage mechanics to fix our cars or physicians to take out our tonsils. Bills in Congress can run as long as 50 pages. Even congressmen consider some issues so complicated as to be best handled by special committee. We do not live in an Athenian society with slaves to do the work while we think about political decisions full-time. Should the expert knowledge of our elected officials be subject to the will of an uninformed electorate? Why should voters have to deal with a long ballot littered with numerous propositions, most of them oversimplified, many too complicated to understand without great study? Why should they have to work their way through such a labyrinthine mess?

Pro: Not every issue needs to be decided through the initiative process, only those most important and fundamental. The sum of individual votes provides a broad, trustworthy base representing a wise, considered decision.

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