WASHINGTON -- Supporters of Gov. Bill Clinton are thinking a lot these days about prospective independent candidate H. Ross Perot and how his presence in the 1992 race will affect Clinton's chances.
But one of them, fellow Arkansan Sen. David Pryor, sees Perot in another light. He sees the Texas billionaire as a warning signal to Congress to do something soon about a political nightmare waiting to happen -- the possibility, for the first time in this waning century, of a presidential election being thrown into the House of Representatives.
The Constitution stipulates that if no candidate wins a majority in the electoral college, which could happen in a three-way race, each state's House delegation casts one vote for president. It's too late to change the law for the 1992 election, but Pryor hopes the Perot factor will persuade Congress to abolish the electoral college by 1996 and go to direct popular election of the president and vice president.
On three occasions, presidential elections have been decided in the House. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes under the original system of each elector casting two votes. The House took 36 ballots to choose Jefferson, with Burr becoming vice president. In 1824, the House selected John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson and William H. Crawford. And in 1876, Samuel J. Tilden narrowly won the popular vote over Rutherford B. Hayes but the electoral count was in dispute. The House, after much procedural wrangling, decided for Hayes.
In November, if neither Clinton, President Bush nor Perot can muster the 270 electoral votes needed, the election will go to the House again. "With voter distrust of Congress at an all-time high," Pryor says, "I cannot begin to imagine the reaction of the American people when they realize that Congress, not the voters . . . would then select the president and vice president."
That prospect this year, Pryor says, may help persuade Congress to amend the Constitution to get rid of the electoral college before the 1996 election. Pryor's proposal specifies that it would not become effective until two years after enactment, which would require an affirmative vote of two-thirds of Congress, presidential approval and ratification by three-fourths of the states.
Perot is not the first independent candidate to trigger an attempt to get rid of the electoral college and take Congress out of the possibility of picking a president. It happened after 1968, when Gov. George Wallace of Alabama won 45 electoral votes on a third-party ticket. The loss of two close states by winner Richard Nixon could have thrown the election into the Democratic-controlled House, probably resulting in the choice of Hubert Humphrey.
In introducing his amendment, Pryor raised a more ominous possibility. He noted allegations that Wallace "might have been prepared to sell his electors to the highest bidder to decide that election in the electoral college." And he pointed out that electors "may vote for anyone they wish in the electoral college" because "they are not legally bound to vote for their designated candidate."
The Wallace experience led to introduction in 1969 of legislation calling for direct election of president and vice president. The House easily passed it, 338-70, with Pryor, then in the House, voting for it along with a Texas Republican named George Bush. Ten years later, in 1979, Pryor and Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana reintroduced a direct election bill and the Senate backed it, but only by 51-48, not the two-thirds majority required. Since then, Pryor notes, 51 new senators have been elected, and more may be in November, raising the possibility of passage in 1993.
Pryor suggests it is in the interest of both houses of Congress to get out from under this particular function (the Senate chooses the vice president in the absence of an electoral college majority). If, for example, Perot were to carry a Democratic congressional district, would the congressman from that district feel obliged to cast his vote within his state's delegation for Perot, Pryor asks, "or follow the desires of his party, or just follow his own conscience?"
It is a dilemma nobody in or out of Congress can do anything about this time around, but Pryor hopes Congress will look past this election and extricate itself for 1996. It is, he acknowledges, a long-shot hope.