Blogs > Iwan Morgan > Of Shibboleths, Showdowns and Shutdowns… or Madison’s Nightmare

Oct 4, 2013

Of Shibboleths, Showdowns and Shutdowns… or Madison’s Nightmare

tags: government shutdown

Americans probably don’t want to read another piece on the shutdown. However it’s impossible to let the incredible events of this week go by without a comment from this UK blogger.

On one level, of course, it could be said that the current standoff is an expression of the checks and balances that constitute the bedrock of the Madisonian constitutional system. However, it is worth remembering that another great American political thinker, Alexander Hamilton, warned in Federalist No 22 that the theory of checks-and-balances should not justify obstructiveness that tended to ‘destroy the energy of government’ and ‘impose tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good.’ Such a situation, he warned, ‘must always savor of weakness, sometimes border on anarchy.’

Both Hamilton and Madison recognized the need for ‘energy,’ even activism, in government when called for. This was hardly surprising because it was anarchy not government that posed the greatest threat to individual rights and freedoms for the Federalist authors. They wanted a governing system capable of making hard choices for the long term.

However, the political theorists of the Enlightenment-influenced late-eighteenth century had not encountered the likes of today’s Republican right-wingers and their Tea Party allies, who are utterly loathe to accept the reality that a programme they hate has been constitutionally enacted by Congress and legitimized by the Supreme Court. The current US impasse is therefore a Madisonian nightmare as a minority uses the checks-and-balances in contravention of Hamiltonian energy to hold government to ransom in pursuit of its ends.

Of course Republicans of the Ted Cruz variety claim they are saving the nation from socialism by trying to hold up Obamacare, thereby arguing that the means justifies the ends. Their hatred and fear of this health-care reform is best understood by referencing the views of Ronald Reagan from fifty years ago.

In 1961, the future president cut a record entitled 'Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine,' which was sponsored by the American Medical association as part of its campaign against the pre-Medicare Kerr-Mills bill. In this, he asserted that 'one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or Socialism on a people has been by way of medicine.'  Explaining away the absence of any reference to socialism in the actual bill, he wrote two friends, 'It comes through the rules and regulations the Department of Health Education, and Welfare puts into effect to administer the bill.'

Like Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, Reagan held a ‘creeping socialism’ view of social welfare. He particularly feared that the introduction of popular reforms in the field of health-care would advance a socialist agenda that ultimately led to communism. Whether Reagan would have approved the methods of today’s right-wing Republicans is unlikely but immaterial. The more important point is that they are both part of the same conservative tradition.

The current impasse is not a battle over the budget in a way that the two shutdowns of 1995-96 were. The latter reflected the incapacity of the Clinton administration and the Contract with America Republicans to agree the taxation and expenditure details of the FY1996 federal budget. There is no fiscal reason why today’s Democrats and Republicans cannot agree a clean budget shorn of any reference to ‘Obamacare.’. The House GOP’s refusal to do so is an act of political blackmail to derail legislation that is already on the statute books.

The convoluted federal budget process is tailor-made to facilitate minority shenanigans. It is one of the mantras of good-government advocates that the American way of formulating a budget has to be changed to prevent such obstructiveness. However, they often forget that the present system was born of good-government intentions to reassert the congressional power of the purse over presidential usurpation in the early 1970s. Fixing the process of making a budget is not the answer. What’s needed is a fix for American politics so that a minority party no longer sees advantage in holding the budget system to ransom.

The only people who can sort out this mess are American voters. The Republicans have not yet suffered an electoral disaster on the scale of critical landslides like 1932, 1964, 1980 or 1994. Accordingly they can still find comfort in the belief that the conservative message will eventually restore them to power. Until the ballot returns make such a belief untenable, the budget and debt limitation will continue to be conservative Republicans’ weapons of choice in their political war on Obama and the Democrats.

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