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MINORITIES OF ONE SHOW THEIR CLOUT

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The closing weeks of Congress showed vividly that the minority often rules there, and sometimes only a minority of one.

That wreaked havoc with several bills important to Utah that were supported by a majority of Congress. But minorities often prevailed by skillful use of congressional rules.One way a single senator can stop legislation is through a rule that allows any member to talk as long on any bill as he or she likes. That allows a minority of one to filibuster a bill to death.

That almost happened to a Western water projects bill, which includes money to finally complete the decades-behind-schedule Central Utah Project.

Sen. John Seymour, R-Calif., didn't like the bill and vowed to filibuster it. The only way to cut off such a filibuster is with a three-fifths vote taken a day after a petition is called seeking it. That also allows a two-fifths minority to stop legislation by refusing to cut off a filibuster.

Seymour came close to surviving such a vote by using delaying tactics - such as forcing the Senate to spend eight hours reading the 375-page bill aloud - as more and more senators started leaving to campaign for re-election, reducing changes for a three-fifths majority vote.

But the CUP was saved when Senate leadership vowed to stay in session as long as necessary to address that and other important bills, and Seymour realized he didn't have enough votes to win. But because of such filibuster power, no bill is considered safe until it has the 60 of 100 votes needed to cut off such debates.

After the water projects bill finally passed, it began facing trouble from another type of minority of one: President Bush. He is considering vetoing it, also because of the California provisions.

If he vetoes it now, Congress cannot override because it has adjourned for the year. If Congress were in session, it could override it with two-thirds votes in both houses. That is difficult, and Bush has only been overridden once in 36 vetoes in four years.

Such rules allow the president and a one-third minority of either house to stop any legislation. And, of course, if Congress has adjourned, the president can do it himself.

Yet another way a minority can prevail was seen in what happened to Utahns' efforts to kill a Mississippi plant that will build new-generation space shuttle boosters to replace those now made in Utah by Thiokol.

Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, persuaded huge majorities in the House and Senate to support killing the new plant. But Mississippi members and their friends dominated a House-Senate conference named to work out differences in the bill.

That small group of powerful members - including many key committee and subcommittee members - added money for the Mississippi plant back in, and Utah members could not block it.

One final way a minority can win is what killed a bill for a land trade that could have brought $50 million to $200 million for financially strapped Utah schools.

The House decided to essentially adjourn Tuesday but allow the adoption of any late bills or amendments through unanimous consent. That meant just one member - any member - could kill any bill for any reason.

Sure enough, it happened. Rep. William Dannemeyer, R-Calif., said he and others objected to passing anything from the Senate because late bills receive too little scrutiny.

Utahns tried to negotiate an exception for the land bill, but House leaders said that would merely lead to other objections from other members upset that their bills too had not received consideration. So all the late Senate action - including the Utah land trade - died.

It seems Congress may suffer from too much democracy. To make the current system and its sometimes strange rules work, it requires good and wise leaders. Good ones willing to work with others and not terrorize the system. And wise ones so they can maneuver for good causes around obstacles set by others.