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The People's House | The Nation

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The People's House

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For two weeks in July, the people took over the People's House. Night after night, after the House of Representatives concluded its regular business, several Democrats trooped to the chamber of the House to read letters from their constituents petitioning their government to act. The letters--some angry, some distraught, some imploring--were written by ordinary citizens, teachers and steelworkers, veterans and students, housewives and retirees.

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Sherrod Brown
Sherrod Brown, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, has represented Ohio's 13th...

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As a Russian studies major at Yale in the 1970s, I observed Soviet
"elections" that were conducted more fairly than the 2002 Yale
Corporation's board of trustees election. Why is the Yale Corporation so
threatened by the candidacy of a prominent New Haven pastor who cares
about Yale and its workers?

The last time a prospective trustee was nominated by petition was almost
forty years ago, when William Horowitz became Yale's first elected
Jewish trustee. Back then 250 signatures were required for ballot
qualification; that has since been raised to 3 percent of eligible
alumni--some 3,200 signatures today. The Rev. Dr. W. David Lee, an
African-American pastor of one of New Haven's largest churches and a
graduate of the Yale Divinity School, gathered 4,870 signatures. If
elected, he would be the only New Haven resident other than Yale's
president to sit on the corporation's board.

But he is also supported by Yale's employee unions, and the
university--one of America's great institutions of higher learning--does
not like that. Normally, the Standing Committee for the Nomination of
Alumni Fellows of the Association of Yale Alumni nominates two or three
alumni to stand for election. This year, apparently threatened by Lee's
grassroots efforts, the committee nominated only one, Maya Lin, creator
of the Vietnam War memorial, around whom the Yale Corporation and its
allies could rally.

As an alumnus, I received no fewer than six mailings--from the alumni
organization, from wealthy Yale alumni, from former corporation board
members--all criticizing Lee for failing to identify who paid for his
mailing, for his "aggressive campaign" and for his "ties to special
interests, labor unions."

In a campaign flier (containing no disclosure of who paid for it), the
Association of Yale Alumni quoted comments from Lee critical of the
university. It is not surprising that a minister of a large church at
which many Yale employees worship might at times express substantial
differences with a university that pays many of those workers less than
a living wage.

As if the Yale Corporation had not already made its interests known,
even the ballot package--paid for by the university and sent to all
voters--was slanted in favor of the corporation's candidate. The
official publication intimates support for its favored candidate from
"over 700 alumni," including the Association of Yale Alumni, the
officers of Yale college classes and Yale clubs and other alumni
associations. The other candidate, the Yale Corporation stated in the
ballot package, was "nominated by petition"--(as though Lee's 4,870
signatures did not indicate the support of those alumni).

Reminiscent of elections conducted in one-party states, the corporation
refused to allow an observer to be present when the ballots are counted.
It is not in the Yale bylaws, he was told.

It is unfortunate that Yale, which has produced so many national
leaders, has earned a widespread reputation for its antiunion activities
[see Kim Phillips-Fein, "Yale Bites Unions," July 2, 2001]. To all but
declare war on Yale's workers and its union, and on an outstanding young
New Haven leader, can only exacerbate city-university tensions and roil
Yale's already troubled labor-management waters.

How could one pro-worker candidate who aspires to a lone seat on a board
of nineteen of America's most influential people unleash the fury of an
entire university hierarchy? Why do powerful people--the kind who sit on
Yale's board--feel so threatened by a local minister? Why can't one of
the world's most prestigious universities--with a multibillion-dollar
endowment--pay its workers a living wage?

For God. For Country. For Yale.

When Congress returned this month, the band of Democrats vowed to continue reading the thousands of letters brought together by an online petition, sponsored by MoveOn.org, a grassroots network of more than 2 million online activists.

More than 400,000 signers demanded that "Congress support an independent commission to investigate the Bush Administration's distortion of evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program."

Petitioners were encouraged to write personal comments to be read on the House floor by their state's members of Congress.

Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky and I organized the effort. We served as megaphones for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans who wanted to know more about the deception and corruption swirling about the ongoing war in Iraq. Each night, I chose a dozen missives from among the 3,000 letters from my state of Ohio, and read them to the House, allowing Ohio citizens to speak directly to the Congress and to the American people.

Sandy from Strongsville, Ohio, wrote: "I am just a typical middle-aged, middle-class American, and I am deeply concerned about the possibility that the young men and women of our armed forces were sent into danger for no good reason."

Mike of Medina, Ohio, wrote: "As a mobilized reservist for Operation Iraqi Freedom I implore you to create a committee to examine the basis for sending us into harm's way. We must ascertain how this happened and if error is found, never allow it to happen again."

Reverend William of West Jefferson, Ohio, sent to his elected representative these words: "It is shameful that a nation with the brilliant legacy of the United States would stand before the leaders of the world and present a case supported with distorted and at times outright false information."

The tradition of bringing the voice of the people to the People's House began with Congressman John Quincy Adams, the only former President to subsequently serve in the House. In 1836, the backlash hit with a series of "gag rules," introduced by Henry L. Pinckney of South Carolina, which passed the House. Pinckney's Rule, along with subsequent "gag rules" passed in 1838 and 1840, banned the printing, discussion and even the mere mention of antislavery sentiment in the House of Representatives.

Prohibited by the "gag rule" from discussing the nation's most controversial topic, the former President patiently stood in the well of the House of Representatives and shared the antislavery petitions he had received: from the Boston Female Antislavery Society, the Ashtabula County (Ohio) Antislavery Society and the Philadelphia Quakers. Some 3,300 petitions holding 163,845 signatures appealed to Congress to remove this huge blemish from American society, and to outlaw the practice of enslaving fellow human beings.

Conservative Southern congressmen of that time, much like the conservative Republican leadership of today's Congress, didn't much like hearing the letters from their constituents. Adams risked censure, expulsion from the House, even his life, to ensure that the halls of our government resounded with the voice of the people. "I have constituents to go to," he explained, "and they will have something to say if this House expels me, nor will it be long before the gentlemen [of Congress] will see me here again."

Now, more than 150 years later, Americans in their own words are speaking out. Denied an opportunity by the leadership to debate the Iraq reconstruction, denied an opportunity to investigate potential wrongdoing at the highest level of government, Americans are struggling to make their voices heard using their only weapon--the right to petition the government.

In letter after letter now coming into my office, people want to know more about the President's request for $87 billion for the next year: Is he going to involve the United Nations? Will he cede some authority to other countries in reconstruction decisions? Will Halliburton continue to receive unbid contracts--while the Vice President is still receiving $13,000 a month from his former company?

Roberta of Columbus, Ohio, wrote: "The truth has never hurt a democracy. Since there are so many unanswered questions, an investigation will not hurt. It will once and for all end the questions of Americans and of many people around the world."

The people are asking for answers from the People's House.

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