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Another Washington disaster

The Republican House shuts down the government

September 2013

The childish peevishness of the Republicans in Congress has passed all decent bounds.
So here we are. The U.S. federal government is (in part) shut down. The thousands of tourists from China, Australia, Germany, and a hundred other countries who were ready to step on an airplane today and fly to see the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Washington DC have just learned that their trip will be to no purpose, because all federal tourist destinations have been shut down. The unfortunate tourists will just have to eat their nonrefundable tickets. And the reason for this? No actual reason at all, but the cause is the idiocy that has infested the Republican party, which is acting much like Somalian pirates – holding hostages to get their way.

You may be thinking that this is the usual Democrat rant, so let me clarify my stance. I'm no lover of the Democratic party. (I grew up in Chicago under an entrenched and corrupt Democratic political machine.) I'm independent – as all voters ought to be, in my opinion – and I have a certain historical respect for the Grand Old Party ("Republicans", for those outside the U.S.). The Republican party was in the forefront of civil rights in the U.S. for a century or more. They freed the slaves against Democrat opposition, they started and ran the Reconstruction program in the South until the Democrats forced its cancellation and brought on Jim Crow (segregation), they led the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s against Democrat opposition, until President Johnson finally got enough Democrats onboard in 1964 to pass a landmark civil rights bill – roughly the same as was proposed by the Republicans in 1957 but was defeated by the Democrats, and which the Democrats have since claimed full credit for.

But fast-forward to the 21st century, and the phrase from the Macbeth witches comes to mind: "something wicked this way comes." The group of activist ultraconservatives that call themselves the "Tea party" has invaded the previously moderate Republican party, and has turned the tenor of the party toward a religiously influenced radical conservatism that borders on irrational extremism. The GOP now seems chained to a witches' brew of philosophy that blends together Bible-based disbelief in biological evolution, corporate-based disbelief in human influences on global warming, and love of guns and military power, with hatred of government social programs – "socialism" in their parlance – and special hatred reserved for President Barack Obama. Under the banner of the Tea party, the Republicans in Congress are now testing their power to disrupt the workings of Congress and the federal government.

Because of Congress' failure to pass an appropriations bill (budget), over the past two years the federal government has been kept afloat with a series of congressional "Continuing Resolutions" that continue the approved governmental functions and programs for a few months. The core idea behind the "CR's" is that they are single-purpose, that is they are written to do one thing – continue funding unchanged – and are passed without amendment. But this fall Tea party leaders decided to use the September CR as a vehicle to attack President Obama's signature health care law ("Obamacare"), which they have chosen as their prime target for destruction by defunding. (As they hate governmental social programs and hate President Obama, the decision to go after President Obama's premier social program was perhaps not difficult for them.) The Republican method of attack has been to refuse to pass a "clean" CR out of the House (which they control), but to attach to the CR a provision calling for defunding of Obamacare. The Senate (which the Democrats control) has naturally refused to pass the House version, and has called on the House to pass a CR without any extraneous provisions.

Republican leaders are defending their action as logical and reasonable: A majority of Americans, they say, are unhappy with Obamacare; therefore it's logical that it should be cancelled, and their customized CR will do just that. So they are doing the will of the people.

The Republican argument is specious at best and wicked in reality. Ordinary congressional procedures give the Republicans in the House every opportunity to pass bills to amend the health care law and to send this to the Senate for their consideration. President Obama has invited the Republicans to propose "improvements" to the health care law. (Of course, the Republicans are not looking for improvements, but cancellation of the law.) But attaching a nonnegotiable provision to a "doomsday bill" and showing themselves unconcerned about the serious effects of a governmental freeze is irresponsible in the extreme and could rightly be called a kind of legislative terrorism. That's not hyperbole. Such actions are equivalent to an airline passenger announcing that if he's not reseated he'll bring down the airplane with a bomb. That's called terrorism.

This is a precedent that cannot be allowed: a party that controls one of the houses of Congress and is bent on passing a pet project, instead of authoring a bill on the matter which would risk defeat in the other house, adds this pet project as an amendment to a bill that has a critical deadline, such as a continuing resolution or – as we may see in a few weeks – a debt ceiling bill, which must pass on time to avoid disaster. By announcing that they will not yield, they threaten to shut down the government, hoping with that threat to force the opposition into an impasse where they must either acquiesce in the scheme or see the government fail to function.

This kind of bullying and undemocratic brinkmanship, taking the country hostage to meet political ends, must be outlawed, perhaps best by tighter congressional rules about single-purpose bills. But beyond changed rules, what is needed is to get representatives in Congress (in both houses) who are dedicated to the principles of democracy and the welfare of the American people, representatives who will eschew partisan power plays by putting the needs and wishes of those who sent them to Congress ahead of their party bosses. The current impasse comes from the pathology that has infested Congress, where the first aim of both parties is to damage the other, and cooperation for the good of the nation has been set aside.

I say "both parties" because the Democrats have engaged in similar shenanigans (in fact, in the very passage of "Obamacare"), but in the current case it's clearly the Republicans who are chiefly to blame. It's a year until we hold congressional elections, but at that time we ought not to forget this outrage, because the solution to our problem with Congress will lay in our hands in November 2014. It is to refuse to vote for Republicans or Democrats, and elect a Congress of independent representatives who are not beholden to a party for election funds. Let's demonstrate that money can't buy elections, by electing competent people who are not tainted by party bias or corrupted by the quid pro quo of big money. I wrote previously about this in the essays noted at the top. There's an irony in our situation: The whole country is complaining about Congress, but we elect the Congress! So far we've refused to do the obvious thing: to reject these two corrupt parties and elect responsible and unbiased representatives. Let's not forget this moment in the course of a year, and let's dismiss the charlatans.


P.S., October 17, 2013:
So ... a temporary agreement has been made in the last hours, the can is kicked down the road, the Republicans have lost for now, and politicians of every stripe are claiming some sort of victory, though no one has won here. The fact is that this misguided effort at machismo has cost the United States dearly. The previous similar crisis - just two years ago - surrounding the raising of the debt ceiling got U.S. securities downgraded and added tens of billions to our cost of borrowing. Just like this year's crisis, the 2011 crisis was brought on by Tea Party Republicans, using minority muscle to force their party to support their view that a reduction in federal government spending must be deep and immediate, along with their willingness to destroy the country's international financial standing to win their point.

"Minority muscle"? you say. Indeed; a minority well positioned can have inordinate power. In the game of chess a well-known strategy is known as the "minority attack", where two pawns attack and dominate three, eventually winning through the weaknesses thus created. The idea of minority power is well-known in European multi-party parliaments: in the comnon case where no major party has gained a pure majority, a small party can gain great power by bargaining to support the major party in a coalition. From my own experience a good example is the election in Norway in 2001, where the Christian Democrats – which got twelve percent and wound up as the fifth most popular party – bargained hard with the winning Conservatives and actually managed to secure the prime ministership for their party leader, Kjell Bondevik. The tea party faction has learned about minority power from such examples.

An interesting question for the near future is whether the more moderate majority in the Republican party will reassume control of the party after these disastrous examples of tea party power politics, and whether an internecine battle within the party will lead the tea party faction to start a separate party (The Tea Party, presumably). The "TP" (perhaps not the most helpful abbreviation – it's commonly used for "toilet paper" in the U.S.) could have enough followers to make it a force in Congress, and could gain control in several state legislatures. Their exit from the Republican party would naturally lead to some losses there, but this could be offset by a move of the GOP toward the center with a likely pickup of centrist voters disaffected by the Democrats' dramatically changed social agenda. The U.S. has had brief examples of multi-party politics before, though the third parties have only occasionally made much impact. Could the TP be the beginning of European-style multi-party politics in the U.S.? And would that be a case of going "from the frying pan into the fire"?

© 2013 H. Paul Lillebo

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