“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
- response attributed to Benjamin Franklin, at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787
It’s fair to say that few commentators on the shutdown appear to know anything at all about the American constitutional structure—and in that number I include the President himself, who seems entirely unaware that the division of powers entrenched by James Madison, John Adams and colleagues was not intended to establish an activist all-powerful presidency, a a virtual monarch presiding over a Congress whose only role being to provide him with an enthusiastic rubber stamp.
The division of powers the founders established was intended to allow dissension, to limit presidential power, to allow proper investigation of Bills written by the House, to delay and/or veto altogether legislation inimical to one branch or other. In short, the division of powers was intended as a check on absolute power. So as Thomas Sowell points out:
As for the House of Representatives' right to grant or withhold money, that is not a matter of opinion ... You can check the Constitution of the United States. All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, which means that Congressmen there have a right to decide whether or not they want to spend money on a particular government activity.
And, in fact,
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted all the money required to keep all government activities going — except for ObamaCare.
This is not a matter of opinion. You can check the Congressional Record…
[So] the hundreds of thousands of government workers who have been laid off are not idle because the House of Representatives did not vote enough money to pay their salaries or the other expenses of their agencies — unless they are in an agency that would administer ObamaCare.
So who is really responsible then for this latest partial shutdown? George Reisman’s answer: "the leftist fanatics ... who [in voting] for ObamaCare were willing to impose massive, and massively expensive, legislation on the American people without any real idea of what they were doing."
In his estimation, the Republican stand against being forced to present a Budget in the House (the lowest chamber of Congress, in which all Budgets are supposed to be introduced) shows full respect for their role given them under the founders’ constitution, under which “their first obligation is to uphold the Constitution of the United States and protect its citizens from a government that knows no limits to its reach and power, as manifested in ObamaCare.”
This is actually an extremely modest exercise of the House’s power over the budget. It should be seen as giving the Democrats in the House and Senate an opportunity finally to read and study the law they have passed (along with the 20,000 pages of government regulations that have already been written in order to carry out its provisions). Moreover, the elections of 2014 will give the supporters of ObamaCare a chance to present their case to an electorate that can then decide the issue by determining the makeup of the next Congress.
However, instead of agreeing to this very modest and thoroughly justified proposal, the Democrat leadership of the Senate has dug in its heels in a fanatical defense of ObamaCare, to the point of closing down major portions of the federal government in order to implement it, irrespective of not knowing what it is and irrespective of its consequences. The Republican majority in the House does not want to shut down the federal government or have it default on the national debt (which could happen later this month). It is fully prepared to fund the federal government and has repeatedly done so, with the single exception of ObamaCare. It is for the sake of maintaining ObamaCare that the Senate Democrats have shut down the federal government.
With all the “shutdown theatre” attached.
So in George Reisman’s estimation then, the stand of the House Republicans is actually a stand on principle—an important one in the life of the Republic.
Yes, terrible consequences can result from upholding principles. The United States has fought wars in order to uphold the principle of individual freedom. The House of Representatives should be willing to risk a default on the national debt to uphold that same principle today…
[I]t well may be that the Democrats in the Senate hate individual freedom and love the augmentation of government power more than they hate or fear anything else. They well may hate liberty more than they fear nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian religious fanatics or North Korean Marxist fanatics. And if that is the case, then while they would meet and negotiate with the Iranians and North Koreans and in some ways agree to their demands, they will not be willing to be as accommodating to the House Republicans and thus will be willing to bring about an actual default on the national debt.
The only way to deal with this possibility is for the Republicans to do everything in their power to make sure that the American people understand what the issue is. Namely, responsible, knowledgeable legislation consistent with the principle of individual freedom, or reckless, power-grabbing legislation of a kind enacted by Congressmen who might as well have been drunk or asleep as far as their votes for ObamaCare were concerned.
If the American people can be made to understand this, then even a default on the national debt will serve as the basis of a great victory and be well worth the price. It would establish a turning point in American history: the point at which the relentless advance of government power was stopped by unyielding, principled opposition.
If only the Republicans were able to articulate that. Instead, as Sowell says in his latest column, “If the continued existence of mathematics depended on the ability of the Republicans to defend the proposition that two plus two equals four, that would probably mean the end of mathematics.”
If only it were possible to believe they would mean it if they did. Instead, as Reisman notes, “Speaker Boehner’s pledge, reported in The New York Times of October 5, to avoid default, implies that the Republican opposition will collapse, isolating whatever men of principle there may be in the Republican Party.”
But if they could, and did, then America could begin a turn back towards the model of the Republic that Benjamin Franklin once wondered to his interlocutor if they would be able to keep.