In the 1999 movie Payback, the main character is a criminal who’s hellbent on recovering the $70,000 that was boosted from him during another heist. “Porter,” played by Mel Gibson, quickly learns that the money was turned over to a powerful crime syndicate. Now he has to climb through its ranks, demanding what he’s due from lieutenant after lieutenant.
There’s a great exchange between Porter and one of the syndicate underbosses, “Carter,” played by William Devane. After Porter pummels his two bodyguards, Carter tells him to sit down. Then he says he’s not authorized to make the decision to return the 70k. The dialogue continues:
Porter: “Who is? Who makes the decision?”
Carter: “Well, a committee would make the decision in this case.”
Porter: “No. No. One man. You go high enough you always come to one man. Who?”
After that, Carter nods in agreement and calls the real boss. Porter tells the boss to pay him or he’ll kill Carter. Then he kills Carter. And the rest of the movie is Porter chasing after the kingpin.
That “one man” line always stuck with me. And even though the immediate application in the film was to a crime ring, there’s often a president, CEO or Chairman of the Board who makes big decisions in legit corporations.
But the times that I’m reminded of that line most are when I’m watching national politics. This might seem counterintuitive since our powers are separated into three branches, and only one is the “one man” (or woman) chief executive.
Yet if we look deeper, we see that many of the big decisions that are made in the judicial and legislative branches often come down to one individual.
Take a look at the nine Supreme Court and its nine associate justices. Nine people. Yet on so many big issues, it comes down to one person. In recent years, prior to his retirement from the Court, Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote in hugely consequential cases that decided all kinds of legislation, including the 2000 presidential election, the Trump travel ban, marriage equality, overhaul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the legalization of corporate contributions to political campaigns, regulations on handguns and many others.
With 435 members of the US House and 100 members of the US Senate, you might think that the “one man” concept wouldn’t apply so much on Capitol Hill. Y’know, majority vote and all. Yet the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader have vast powers that they can exercise unilaterally if they choose to. And they choose to plenty.
In the recent impeachment proceedings in the House, Speaker Pelosi could have taken the more traditional route in calling for a full vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry that commenced last October. She chose not to, and her opponents in the Senate have criticized this decision during the trial. Known as a master strategist, the Speaker knew this was coming. She made the decision anyway – and had the power to do so all alone.
In the impeachment trial that has played out in the Senate over the last two weeks, we’ve seen the enormous power that the Majority Leader holds over how proceedings are structured. In both the House and the Senate, the members of the majority vest a huge amount of trust when they elect their leaders at the beginning of each congressional session.
Of course, on every piece of legislation that the leaders choose to bring to the floor, every member has the power to cast their votes on behalf of their district or state. Yet plenty of big votes still come down to that one man or woman. One of the most high profile in recent years was the vote on healthcare cast by Senator John McCain in 2017. Not only did McCain vote against legislation proposed by his own party – it had the effect of protecting the Affordable Care Act that was signed into law by the very president he had lost an election to in 2008!
Now back to the future, and the question before the Senate right now on whether or not to permit witnesses to testify in the Trump Impeachment Trial. We are getting close to the vote, and while the GOP will need 51 votes to shut down witness appearances, this, too, looks to really be coming down to one vote.
While they are not certain “yes’s” – Republican Senators Murkowski, Romney and Collins look like they’re leaning that way. If they do vote yes, joining 47 Democrats, only one more vote will be required.
The remaining question mark in this equation is Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. It all might come down to him.
Alexander is known as an independent thinker, which might bode well for the Democrats. But he is also described as the closest person in the Senate to Mitch McConnell – by McConnell himself.
Alexander doesn’t need to worry about reelection the way Murkowski, Romney and Collins have to. Some believe he may be thinking about his historical legacy – and that may trump his loyalty to McConnell.
Even if Alexander votes against, and it’s split 50-50, there’s still the possibility that Chief Justice John Roberts will decide to use his discretion to break the tie. One individual.
These big votes are often a guessing game. More like a parlor game. But it is amazing that in a country of 330 million people, who are the mercy of 536 federally elected officeholders – and nine Supreme Court Justices – our fate is so frequently decided by that “one man.”