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Cruz Bay
Thursday, August 18, 2022


I have never understood why the proposal to reduce the number of senators in the V.I. Legislature has received so much apparent support and so little analytical discussion.
Let me be clear from the onset; I do not support the proposal, and for a variety of reasons.
Part 1
It has been proposed, and is being supported, as a good way to reduce the legislative budget and assist with our financial crisis. There are other ways of doing this that do not have the mischievous effects that I foresee if this proposal is enacted.
One major problem is that it would increase the power of each individual senator. If a quorum now is eight out of 15, then a quorum would likely be five out of nine, or six out of 11. It would therefore be easier for one senator to stop the wheels from turning, to stop legislative action by breaking a quorum.
And, when it takes fewer votes to pass legislation, each vote becomes more important. Where an interested person or group might have to gain the support of five to eight legislators now, after a reduction, only three to five would be needed.
In a smaller legislature, the vote of each senator would have more weight. Theoretically, each of them would also represent a larger range of interests than each does now. Is that what we want?
The theoretical basis for democracy is not simply that majorities rule, but that within the electorate, there will always be shifting majorities. The theory is that you will never have the same groups within the electorate always coming together on the same side of the different issues that are to be decided. Allies on one issue will be opponents on another, and the makeup of the majorities will be different on different issues. Compromises will be necessary for action to be taken; no group will be always on the losing side, and no group will always be on the winning side.
That is why democracy is seen as inefficient but fair, imperfect but the best system of government yet devised for human beings.
Now, if the continuous competition among the various interests in an electorate is the essence of democracy, what does that say for a system in which a very few persons are said to represent all of the various factions within the community? In fact, it merely makes worse that which I see as the basic problem of our electoral system — at-large elections within districts.
There have been many debates about changing the basis of our elections through the use of either numbered seats or subdistricting, but I scarcely ever hear anyone championing subdistricting on the grounds that it would encourage responsibility and better enable democracy to work. That, however, is the position that I take.
When a legislator makes a public statement claiming that some action that they have recently taken, or which they intend to take, is in the best interest of "the community," I generally wonder which "community" they are talking about. We have many different communities in these Virgin Islands and most people belong to more than one.
There is a tenant community, and a landlord community, a merchant community and a consumer community, an employer community and a employee community, a creditor community and a debtor community, a land-based community and a water-based community, a low-income community, a middle-income community and a high-income community, a sporting community, a child-raising community, a retired community, a home-owning community, a development community, a farming community, etc. As you can see, not only can any one person belong to a number of different communities at the same time, but one person can change from one community to an opposing one over time.
That is the genius of democracy. Each interest, each "community" if you will, is supposed to contend for measures of benefit to it. It is in the compromises, the persuasion and the trade-offs to create those "shifting majorities" that democracy is supposed to work. So how can one person represent all of those different interests?
Part 2
In my view, we have here the worst of two different systems. We have neither a proportional system where a party standing for specific policies gets the number of seats in proportion to number of votes that the party received, nor a single member district system where the people choose one person of two or more candidates as their representative.
With proportional representation, the focus is on the policies of the party and not so much on the individual representative — the party is responsible for carrying out its platform. With single member districts, the representative is directly responsible to the people of his district.
In our present system, with every senator being responsible to everyone and every interest within the district of St. Thomas and St. John or the district of St. Croix, they are effectively responsible to no one.
And reducing the number of senators does not better the situation, it makes it worse.
But we do need to reduce the expenditures of our government. Rather than reducing the number of senators, why not return them to part-time status and drastically reduce their staff?
The U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature is a prime example of the axiom that "work" will expand to fill the time allotted.
Much of what many senators do is not a normal part of their job. Virtually all have ongoing projects or programs, but their job is to propose, debate and vote on our laws. Why have these projects and programs been developed? Because they need to justify their full-time status and give their large staffs enough to do.
This is not to say that the programs and projects may not be beneficial in themselves. But why are we paying our legislators to develop and run them? Aren't they more properly the preserve of the executive branch or private non-profit agencies? While they may be developed in response to perceived needs within the community, they are not a part of the legislative function.
Contrary to the common political rhetoric, the Legislature is not supposed to be the overseer of the functioning of the executive branch. While the operation of each of these branches have an impact on each other, the relationship should not be even indirectly managerial.
The legislative functions of these Virgin Islands do not require full-time legislators, and the effectiveness of each senator would be enhanced if he/she functioned as the actual representative of the people and interests of a defined geographic area. The needed administrative and research work could be done by a much smaller full-time staff, and the cars, drivers, cellular telephones and similar "perks" could be eliminated.
Senators are not supposed to be elected to "do good things" for the communities of these Virgin Islands; they are elected as our representatives to make our laws. Their role has expanded although the time that they spend in session still reflects a part-time function.
Reducing the number of senators is a step in the wrong direction, and simply distracts us from the real problems, which are inherent in our electoral system.
Editor's note: Judith Bourne is an attorney in private practice in St. Thomas.

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