Happy government shutdown! After years of flirting with the idea, folks in Washington have finally gotten their act together and failed to pass spending authority for the federal government. And what’s even more, they’ve spent the last week telling anyone who will listen how it’s obviously the other side’s fault. What else were they going to do with that time? (Hint: they could have passed spending authority for the federal government.) This isn’t your run-of-the-mill failure of leadership, this is really exceptional stuff.
It’s enough to make me seriously reconsider whether or not to retract my earlier piece against vilifying and denigrating politicians. Even I have to admit that the common anti-government sentiment seems pretty justified right about now.
As does the image many Americans have of our politics as being essentially maximalist: if you needed evidence that US politics ain’t beanbag, you could hardly ask for a better example than the sight of Texas Senator Ted Cruz reading “Green Eggs and Ham” during his 21-hour Not-Really-A-Filibuster-Filibuster. If you ask the opposition party about this sort of approach to governing, they’ll no doubt tell you that this is what the Framers had in mind when they set up a system of checks and balances. Right?
Let’s take a look at two of the most visible checks built into our legislative process, starting with the filibuster. First of all, the filibuster doesn’t really date back to the Framers – but I’ll grant you that it’s old. And on the surface it seems to encourage heroic efforts at stopping legislation by a dedicated few. Likewise, the bicameral structure of the Congress – which requires two bodies to agree on the wording of a bill – also seems to work in favor of a minority of the establishment holding things up. (You don’t need a majority of votes in the Congress to stop something, you just need a majority of one chamber. Or a big enough minority in the Senate thanks to the aforementioned filibuster.) These are big checks on majority power – and checks, the argument goes, are there to be used.
But this argument misses the major role that our system envisions for consensus politics. For an illustration, consider what would happen if the President used his Constitutional veto power on every bill. He has that ability, but it’s pretty obvious it would be a disaster. Sure, the Congress also enjoys an override provision – but no one would argue that if it were forced to override a Presidential veto on every bill that it would be good for the country or our democratic process.
The very structure of the Presidential veto – as well as Congress’ power to override that veto – hints at what the Framers had in mind: a vigorous democratic process that would ultimately produced consensus but that, in exceptional cases, might produce gridlock. The fact that the President could choose not to veto a bill he disagrees with is a reminder that gridlock is, in the end, a choice.
What the Republicans are attempting to do by leveraging their control over the House of Representatives to defund a duly-passed piece of legislation – one that has been challenged and upheld in the courts – is akin to a Presidential abuse of the veto power. This is even clearer after the GOP ran a national election premised on the platform of accomplishing precisely this legislative goal…and lost. It represents the application of full procedural pressure within a consensus system, and the inevitable outcome is chaos.
They are also purposefully confusing the distinction that is supposed to exist between two simultaneous tracks of democratic politics. The first of these is the substantive track – it’s where we focus on the merits of the policy. The second of these is the procedural track – it’s where we police Constitutional order. The GOP has focused on the substantive argument against Obamacare and has acted like the procedural track doesn’t exist. Democracy means sometimes you lose; the Tea Party wing of the party has done everything to leave their supporters with the impression that losing when you’re in the right is somehow illegitimate. Shame on them.
As a consequence, Republicans are acting outside the informal, but clear, rules of what counts as appropriate political gamesmanship. To hold the federal budget and the health of the US economy hostage to a legislative goal they lack the votes to accomplish is an act of procedural bad faith – akin to when FDR threatened to pack the Court in the 1930s. Even if they’re right on the substance, only the most extreme circumstances could justify this course of action. Despite the rhetoric, and whatever the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act may be, the country isn’t facing that sort of threat.
But President Obama is guilty of his own sins: he focused on the process and passed his legislation, but he has spectacularly neglected the substantive argument. As a result, the American people are angry and confused. (If you think I’m being patronizing when I suggest some opponents of the ACA are ‘confused’, then click here, here, and here.) The truth is that the GOP wouldn’t be capable of putting up this kind of fight if Obama hadn’t given them the political space to do so.
Here’s a telling quote from the President:
Folks here in Washington like to grade on style. Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear they would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy. … We know that because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq War until it ended up blowing [up] in our face.
President Obama said that about his Syria policy, but it’s wonderfully emblematic of so much of how he has approached healthcare reform. That’s because it is simultaneously true and entirely beside the point. The job of President isn’t just about good policy, it’s also about creating the sort of politics that supports good policy. In other words, it isn’t just about winning, it’s also about winning victories worth having.
The President got his signature piece of legislation in his first two years, but an inability to lead on the politics means it has cost him dearly. As the government shuts down, it is costing all of us.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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