By Sam Schwartz and Jesse Kudler
In an earlier article, Sam wrote about how Philadelphia DSA’s Bylaws Committee, purposely or inadvertently, recreates an anti-democratic feature of the US Senate. This piece will focus on how the functioning of the Resolutions Subcommittee (RS) of the Steering Committee (SC), again perhaps inadvertently , recreates an anti-democratic feature of the US Supreme Court. (We hope that our chapter’s process for electing local delegates to the DSA National Convention is democratic so we do not have to write about how this group has incorporated an element that reproduces the Electoral College, achieving the full trifecta of US anti-democratic structures.)
First, a brief history of the Supreme Court. Until Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court was merely the highest interpreter of the laws passed by the popular branches of government. That is, if person A felt that the law entitled her to X from person B, but Person B thought that the law only entitled Person A to Y, the Supreme Court was the final possible arbiter of that dispute. However, in Marbury, the Court seized for itself the power not merely to adjudicate between Person A and B, but to declare the laws themselves unconstitutional. Make no mistake; this was a coup. The Constitution fairly clearly prescribes a Legislature and an Executive entitled to their own conception of what is or is not constitutional, and a Court that was powerless to interfere with those interpretations. But this power, once grabbed, has also consistently been used in a factional manner. That is, since snatching this power for itself, the Court has wielded it to preserve minority rule by elites, especially in the rare instances when allies of working people are able to control the popular branches of government.
A similar coup has occurred in Philly DSA. To appreciate this point, it is important to understand how Robert’s Rules should function. Usually under Robert’s Rules, all types of motions, including resolutions and amendments, can be brought from the floor of an assembly, barring a ruling from the chair that such motions are out of order. Importantly though, the rulings of the chair can be appealed, because like the popular branches before Marbury, the general assembly is entitled to its own opinions on what motions are in and out of order. But in Philly DSA, this power has been denied from the general assembly. It has instead been seized by an unelected body. Our Steering Committee (SC), without notice to, or a vote by the membership, appointed a subcommittee to review proposed resolutions and reject those it declares out of order. The only mode of appeal from an adverse ruling is to the SC. To date, the SC has never overruled the RS.
These rulings are so subjective and prone to misuse that even one of the RS’s own members claimed at the July General Meeting that a resolution his committee approved was in fact out of order. Further exacerbating this problem is the fact that the RS, along with the rest of the SC, are members of a private caucus that meets in secret to organize for their own resolutions and against those of other members. In short, the RS is precisely the kind of organ a ruling clique would institue to allow for continued rule in a situation where rapid membership growth is quickly making them a minority, even of active members.
In preparation for the upcoming general meeting, members from across our big tent organization submitted resolutions and bylaws amendments. Not a single motion brought by the SC, or by the members of its “boss caucus,” was rejected. Meanwhile, four motions brought by people not invited to this group were ruled out of order. Some of the resolutions brought from outside the boss caucus were only accepted after being made to conform to the SC’s brand new political and procedural vision of committee formation (addressed below). The four rejected resolutions were not granted this opportunity. What follows is our hypothesis for why these 4 in particular were rejected out of hand.
We think that it is highly unlikely that members of the boss caucus are merely better resolution drafters. First, language is inherently ambiguous. Unlike a math problem, there is no objectively right or wrong answer as to whether a motion is in or out of order. This is why arguing about the law is a major profession in most countries, and also why the notion of being better or worse at resolution drafting, without reference to the democratic will of a particular assembly, is incoherent. Perhaps the general assembly would agree with the RS that a given motion is out of order, although we would be surprised if others found the reasons given by the RS for rejection compelling.
The first rejected resolution would have set up a participatory and democratic process for setting the agendas for general meetings. (Full disclosure: Sam was a co-sponsor of this resolution.) The rationale provided for finding it out of order was that our bylaws state that the SC will set the agenda for General Meetings. Of course, the Bylaws do not state how the SC will set the agenda for general meetings. It is possible that the SC could set the agenda for the meeting by honoring the results of the process laid out in this resolution. By that reading, the resolution is very much in order. It is therefore impossible to dismiss the possibility that the resolution was found out of order only because it would devolve power away from the SC (and thus the boss caucus) and not because it legitimately violated our chapter’s bylaws.
The second rejected resolution would have created a rotation of chairs for our General Meetings (Sam also co-sponsored this resolution.) Again, the rationale for rejecting it came from our bylaws which state that “[t]he Co-Chairs will be the chief Steering officers of the Local. They will preside over Local and Steering Committee meetings (emphasis by the RS) or will appoint a substitute to assume the powers and duties of the presiding officers as specified in Robert’s Rules of Order.” This rationale is even more inane than the first one, as the clause directly after the one they chose to bold and italicize states that the chairs can “appoint a substitute to assume the powers and duties of the presiding officers…” This means that, as above, they could pick substitutes by the process outlined in the resolution, rendering the resolution in order. However, just as above, this resolution would devolve power away from the SC and its boss caucus, so we cannot help but wonder if it was on that basis found out of order.
The third rejected resolution would have amended the bylaws to, in certain circumstances, mandate elections for SC vacancies. Under the current system, the SC can and does appoint people to fill such vacancies. The RS ruled this out of order because it was not received a month before the General Meeting, as stipulated by the Bylaws. However, because of the ambiguity of language, addressed above, it is undemocratic for the RS to pretend this is the only possible interpretation of this language. US Courts have held that a month in a contract actually means 4 weeks. The general assembly could also take the view that to be in order, a bylaws amendment needs to be received in the calendar month before the calendar month of the General Meeting, or a host of other interpretations. But because the political substance of the resolution was unappealing to the RS (who as mentioned above are all also SC members who currently can and do appoint their friends and fellow boss caucus members to fill SC vacancies), they inappropriately usurped the general assembly in order to choose between these competing interpretations and to rule the resolution out of order.
Lastly, the fourth rejected resolution was for a Harassment Policy and Grievance Procedure that differs in some important ways from the SC’s preferred Harassment Policy and Grievance Procedure, which was not rejected (Jesse co-authored the rejected version). Instead of letting the general assembly choose between these two competing policy options, the RS chose to rule its less-favored one out of order, again on specious grounds. The rationale provided, yet again, was that it conflicted with the bylaws, specifically, Article 3, Section 2 which states, “[e]xpulsion of a member requires a two-thirds vote of the Local meeting,” and, at least according to the RS, the resolution would give the power to expel a member to the SC. However, the resolution would have done no such thing. It is true that the resolution outlined a process for expulsion by the SC, but the very next part states that this process will only go into effect “[i]f Philadelphia DSA has not yet developed discipline or expulsion procedures…” As the RS itself noted in its rationale for finding the resolution out of order, Philly DSA already has a process for expulsion in place, and thus the condition that would conflict with the bylaws would never materialize. Therefore, this resolution, like all others written by members, should be considered by the general meeting.
Similarly, when it came time for amendments to these resolutions, 14 were submitted by various and sundry members. None submitted by members of the boss caucus were ruled out of order, while 4 submitted by other DSA members were. Only one rationale was given for excluding all 4 amendments (fortunately for those of you getting tired of reading!) Each rejected amendment would have opened up the proposed committee it applied to so that any Philly DSA member in good standing who attended either the first committee meeting or two consecutive meetings could become a member of the committee. This was deemed out of order. The crux of the RS’s argument was that “[a]llowing a member to join a committee by voluntarily choosing to attend its meetings is, by definition, not a method of appointment” (emphasis by the RS.) But, of course, this is a tautological argument that amounts to saying this is not a method of appointment because it is not a method of appointment. Anyone with the power to appoint people has the power to say that he/she/they/it will appoint whomever volunteers. Anyone, that is, besides the membership of Philly DSA who have had that power stripped from us without so much as a vote, or even a conversation, but by fiat. It is also worth noting that this rule about committee formation is completely new. Committees, including LILAC, have been formed this way in the past. Nor was this new rule ever voted on. It simply appeared recently in a lengthy policy document authored by the boss caucus.
Control of the RS also gives the boss caucus yet another strategic advantage: not only do they get to handpick the resolutions and amendments that everyone else will deliberate on, they get to know which resolutions and amendment are “in order” before everyone else. For uncontroversial resolutions, this is not a problem, but for contested resolutions, this allows them a head start in the important process of crafting amendments, brainstorming talking points, assigning speakers, practicing speeches, etc. For a caucus that is frequently hectoring others about being undemocratic, is remarkable what a putrid system for minority rule they have allowed to flourish under standing rules that they themselves instituted without notice or a vote.
On principle, socialists should never let such an affront to democratic procedure stand. But equally important are the underlying substantive debates that the SC fears and is using procedural machinations to avoid. The boss caucus’s stranglehold on procedure stops members from working on anything besides a few narrowly-conceived campaigns: a rote Medicare for All canvass that has presented zero evidence of having achieved anything, limited labor solidarity actions, and assorted work joining coalitions late in the game or bird-dogging candidates who have already secured re-election. Interestingly, the labor actions are organized by a labor branch that is allowed to operate much in the same way we would argue committees should, with a broad mandate, limited micromanagement from the Steering Committee, and the power to act relatively independently without the need to seek approval for each decision from rare general member meetings. However, it is also allowed to set its own membership standards, neither approved by the GM nor fitting the SC’s policies. Unfortunately, due to a rather bizarre interpretation of our bylaws, again unilaterally forced on the Local by the boss caucus, non-geographic branches can only be formed with the participation of a member of the SC. In their year and a half in leadership, no member of the SC has seen fit to create a branch around any issue besides labor, despite demonstrated interest from their membership in issues such as Housing Justice, Immigrant Justice, Criminal Justice, Racial Justice, Gender Justice, Ecosocialism, among others. The RS needs to be abolished, and quickly, to allow for a truly democratic, multi-tendency Philly DSA.