A Commentary On The Budget Crisis

I have decided to do something I have not done in a long time: remark on a political issue.

The budget crisis that is gripping our country has seized my intrigue.  And, since I have been in a pretty intellectual mood lately, I can’t resist the temptation to weigh in.

The facts are these.  Republicans control the House of Representatives; Democrats control the presidency and the Senate.  A bill must be passed by October 1st (Tuesday) to fund the federal government, or it will be forced to shutdown.  If a bill to increase the borrowing limit is also not passed by mid-October, the federal government will default on its debts.

The House of Representatives is refusing to pass any bill that funds the government unless Obamacare is defunded or delayed.  The Senate and the President are refusing to pass any bill that defunds or delays Obamacare.

Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the implementation of Obamacare.  The polls also show that a majority of Americans oppose shutting down the government.

Neither side appears willing to compromise.

The Democrats have accused the Republicans of using illegitimate tactics and have called some of them “anarchists” and “legislative arsonists.”  The Republicans have argued that their tactics are supported by James Madison’s Federalist No. 58.  They argue that this is the way our government is supposed to work.

James Madison is the father of the American Constitution and, accordingly, his writings carry great weight on issues of concerning the mechanics of our government.  He was, after all, the chief engineer who designed the machine.

A testament to his genius, Madison foresaw the exact dilemma we are faced with.  He wrote that the “power of the purse” — the House of Representative’s authority to fund or defund the government — is a key aspect of our democracy. Madison envisioned that such power would be used “address grievances” and to “carry into effect every just and salutory measure.”  James Madison wrote the following:

The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.

However, Madison believed that both chambers of Congress would have an interest in avoiding a government shutdown.  He wrote as follows:

But will not the House of Representatives be as much interested as the Senate in maintaining the government in its proper functions, and will they not therefore be unwilling to stake its existence or its reputation on the pliancy of the Senate? Or, if such a trial of firmness between the two branches were hazarded, would not the one be as likely first to yield as the other? These questions will create no difficulty with those who reflect that in all cases the smaller the number, and the more permanent and conspicuous the station, of men in power, the stronger must be the interest which they will individually feel in whatever concerns the government. Those who represent the dignity of their country in the eyes of other nations, will be particularly sensible to every prospect of public danger, or of dishonorable stagnation in public affairs. To those causes we are to ascribe the continual triumph of the British House of Commons over the other branches of the government, whenever the engine of a money bill has been employed. An absolute inflexibility on the side of the latter, although it could not have failed to involve every department of the state in the general confusion, has neither been apprehended nor experienced. The utmost degree of firmness that can be displayed by the federal Senate or President, will not be more than equal to a resistance in which they will be supported by constitutional and patriotic principles.

To summarize, Madison recognized that giving the House of Representatives the power to fund the government could lead to a government shutdown. However, he noted that such a thing had never happened in Great Britain.  He thought it was unlikely to ever happen, because the representatives would view it as an embarrassment to the country and a threat to their own personal security.

Dear Mr. Madison . . . it’s happening.  (And it has happened before.)

Of course, Madison is right.  Shutting down the government does not benefit anyone.  And it may cause severe damage to our international reputation and economy.

That being said, the power to defund the government exists for a reason.  If the President and Senate believe the government will never do it, the power means nothing.  The real question that faces us today is, “what are the legitimate goals that can be accomplished by that power?”

Madison had something to say about obstructionist behavior, too.  He advised against requiring a quorum of more than 51% in order to pass new laws for fear that doing so would result in minority rule.  He wrote the following:

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences.

It is interesting that Madison used the word “extort” which is the same term that has been used by President Obama.  Terms aside, Madison clearly saw obstructionism as an evil to be avoided — at least in cases where it was a minority doing the obstruction.

In sum, our Constitution gives the House of Representatives the power to shut down the government.  However, that power should not be used for the purposes of minority party oppression.  It should be reserved for rare situations where the interest is great enough to justify the disruption.

Turning to the crisis at hand, a majority of our representatives apparently feel that repealing Obamacare is worth shutting down the government to make a point.  These are the people we elected to Congress and I respect their decision, whether or not I agree with it.  If we don’t like the consequences, we can voice our opinions and vote them out next term if they don’t listen.  I predict they will come to their senses soon enough and realize that our national reputation and solvency is more important than the type of healthcare system we have.

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