The people of the United States certainly voted for dramatic economic and foreign policy changes. but did they vote for a cultural and constitutional revolution, too?
The new Republican-controlled Senate is not just conservative. It is, by any satndard of moderation, ultraconservative. The new senator from North Carolina, John East, is said to be the right-wing conscience of Jesse Helms. the new senator from Alabama, Jeremiah Denton, says that the biggest threat to our nationis promscuity among teenagers. The respected political newsletter the Baron report says that Senator-elect Denton favors capital punishment for adultery.
Nowhere is the change in the Senate more starkly illustrated than in the chairmanship of the Judiciary committee. Gone is liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, replaced by conservative Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Thurmond, you may recall, bolted the Democratic Party in 1948 and ran for president on the segregationist States Rights ticket. but with the advent of the Voting Rights Act, a 30 percent black population in South Carolina, and time , thurmond moderated and today he finds himself almost in the center of the Republican Party. It's already clear that Thurmond, like President Reagan, will have some difficulty keeping the forces of the right from doing everything they want.
Since the election, Thurmond has voiced varying degrees of support for: a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget; a constitutional amendment banning virtually all abortions; a constitutional amendment permitting voluntary prayer in schools; and legislation that would forbid the courts to issue school busing orders of any kind.
Thurmond says his number one priority is the constitutional amendment on a balanced budget. Still, despite all of Ronald Reagan's tough talk, the President-elect faces a huge budget deficit in January, and it seems reasonable to assume that Reagan would not want to be hamstrung by a constitutional amendment right away. Thurmond, in an interview, said that if Reagan asks him to back off he will. Of course, the Republicans could pass a balanced budget amendment and figure it will take so long to be finally adopted that it won't matter to Reagan anyway.
Thurmond is less enthusiastic about a constitutional amendment bannin abortions. He says he "won't object to it," but he says he prefers to go the legislative route. What thurmond is contemplating is legislation that would bar the federal courts from fashioning any so-called legal remedies that affect a state's right to prohibit medical procedures. This sort of legislation would probably pass the House and Senate.
The real question is, is it constitutional? My gut instinct, after talking to several noted constitutional scholars, is that it wouldn't be. But it's a complicated legal question, and who knows what an increasingly conservative Supreme court would do. The issue is whether Congress can bar the courts from enforcing a right the courts have said is a fundamental right for women, and the Constitution gives Congress the right to determine judicial jurisdiction.
All this legal hocus pocus makes it even more likely that Thurmond will be under enormous pressure from the Moral Majority and other right-wing elements of his party to report to the floor of the Senate a constitutional amendment on abortions. If you look at the Senate and house line-up, you will see that a vote on this question could be close. It takes two-thirds of both houses and three-fourths of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment. It's not an easy thing to do. The founding fathers didn't intend it to be. But it is entirely possible that the right-to-life forced are on the verge of a tremendous victory.
A constitutional amendment permitting voluntary school prayer seems, at least to me, to be an even more likely possibility. Even without the political changes that occurred this month, a school prayer amendment was gathering steam.
And the legislation on busing seems a certainty. It would remove busing as a remedy available to the courts. The legislation would then be tested in the courts, and, if it is struck down, a constitutional amendment banning busing would probably become a major issue.
All of this talk about the courts brings up another point. The Supreme Court. Five of the Justices are over 70. And while Richard Nixon's appointees faced tough scrutiny in the Senate confirmation process, that is not going to happen with Ronald Reagan's appointees.
Birch Bayh and Ted Kennedy stopped the Haynsworth and Carswell nominations, but Bayh is gone, and Kenendy is only a member of the minority now. If Ronald Reagan gets a Supreme Court appointment, he could probably appoint Lassie and get away with it.
Finally, there are other serious legalmatters that will come before the Judiciary Committee in the next few years. Look for FBI and CIA charters that are much more friendly to those agencies. Senator Thurmond says he wants to reinstitute the death penalty for certain federal crimes. Look for a new criminal code that is much less considerate of civil liberties than the one now in Congress. Look for legislation that cuts down on the jurisdiction of the courts in certain consumer and civil rights fields.Look also for a major drive to gut the Freedom of Information Act and for an effort to repeal the Voting Rights Act. Senator Thurmond says he favors repeal.
Just how much of this constitutional tinkering and drastic legal changing will be endorsed by Reagan is unclear. Just how much he is willing to put himself on the line to stop some of it is equally unclear. During the campaign, his aides said privately that Reagan intended economic and foreign policy changes, and that "all the social stuff like abortion and ERA" in the platform was just window dressing the candidate had to go along with. Indeed, the campaign sent out busloads of moderate professional women like Carla Hills to reassure nervous suburban Republican women.
But at his first press conference Reagan stood strongly by his platform for a constitutional amendment on abortion. And Judiciary Committee sources say the priorities there are basically the cultural issues of abortion, busing, prayer.
The forces of the right are already making threatening noises at Reagan and Vice President-elect Bush. One hopes we haven't reached the point in this country where civility and caution go out the window. One hopes we are not being faced with a sort of righte-wing Red Guard that is unswervingly bent on its own form of cultural and constitutional revolution. Or is that what we voted for, too?
Senator Thurmond is also considering whether to reestablish the Senate subcommittee on internal security, the Senate counterpart to the now defunct House un-American Activities Committee. There will probably be an effort to revive HUAC. The talk of the revival of these committees, along with some of the massive legal changes being planned for our soeicty and constitution, cannot help but evoke memories of the 1950s and the McCarthy era. Let's hope they are just memories.