11/04/2005 04:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons in Democracy

Something’s terribly wrong when self-identified defenders of liberty seize the low ground and start acting like autocrats and despots themselves. Consider the bizarre case of Senator John Ensign and the altogether refreshing reaction of some of his most outraged constituents.

In late October, during consideration of the Treasury Department budget, the Senate was asked to consider legislation to stop enforcement of the ban on Americans’ travel to Cuba. Senator Byron Dorgan, defender of our freedom to travel, has been fighting this battle for years. He thinks it’s nuts that Americans are perfectly free to travel to places like China and Vietnam - communist countries - free to travel to so-called axis of evil nations Iran and North Korea, but in Dorgan’s words, “we were going to somehow punish Fidel Castro by restricting the American people's right to travel to Cuba.”

In years past, this “freedom to travel to Cuba” legislation had passed the House and Senate, but never landed on the president’s desk – Bush has always threatened to veto the measure if it ever arrived intact at the White House. But Dorgan had every reason to believe that he could, as in past years, get a vote on his proposal. After all, the Senate is a democratic institution, right?

Enter Senator Ensign. Before Dorgan got his vote, Ensign played a parliamentary trick. In the legislative equivalent of putting a dog in the manger, Ensign attached a “second degree” amendment to Senator Dorgan’s original amendment. The Ensign proposal was about the interstate transportation of minor women seeking abortions. This put all Senators in the position of having to cast a contentious vote on choice to get to the underlying language on Cuba. This made the Dorgan amendment far too divisive, and Dorgan was forced to withdraw it.

Now here’s the really ugly part. Did Ensign attach an abortion amendment because he legitimately wanted Congress to vote on it? No, says Ensign’s chief of staff, John Lopez, the Senator attached his amendment with the sole purpose of stopping the effort to open travel to Cuba.

You can say that’s just the way things are done in Washington. But that explanation wasn’t good enough for at least fifty of Ensign’s constituents, who picked up the phone and called his office demanding an explanation for Ensign’s sabotage of Senator Dorgan’s Cuba travel amendment.

According to one, “I called and asked why the Senator did that. She (the staffer) answered, Sir, I'm not here to debate with you. I said I wasn't debating anything, I was only asking for an explanation. She said she didn't know why the Senator did so, and I told her it was an outrageous subversion of the democratic process and that the issue should be left open to debate. How long does he have in office? I then asked, but just as I completed my question, she said, Sir, have a good day, and hung up on me.”

Another constituent said, “I told the staff member that I simply wanted to have a better understanding of what the senator was hoping to accomplish by attaching the amendment regarding abortion as these are two completely separate issues. All that the staff member would say is that the senator does not support Communist countries. When I asked how abortion relates to travel to Cuba I received the same response, Senator Ensign does not support Communist countries. Then I asked what the correlation is between abortion and supporting Communist countries - I even apologized for my ignorance and was told again, Senator Ensign does not support Communist countries.”

A third recounts, “I said I wanted to speak about a ‘sneaky move’ and she promptly hung up on me.”

The stories go on and on. When we notified people nationwide about Ensign’s maneuver, I was immediately struck by how passionately people responded. It was a great lesson in democracy and how people outside the Beltway aren’t cynical about the process or about how things ought to work.

It’s quite possible that Senator Ensign just isn’t educable when it comes to democratic values. Five months ago, when the Senate was debating whether you could filibuster nominations to the Supreme Court, Ensign said, “I am very concerned that we are setting a precedent here where good people will be denied an up-or-down vote.”

Apparently when it comes to denying the good people of Nevada and America an up-or-down vote on traveling to Cuba, he’s more inclined to act like an autocrat than a democrat.