Holding America Hostage at the Cost of Constitutional Government

Like almost everyone else, I’m so disgusted with Congress that I wish we the people could force a national vote of no confidence for the whole lot of them, and start over. I believe if we chose 435 people at random from the 340 million Americans, we would do much better. And I feel certain that no group of 435 average Americans chosen by lottery would stoop so low or be so short-sighted as to shut down the government of the United States.

We are a very great nation. Great nations don’t let their governments collapse or for that matter just lapse. They pay their debts. They honor the sanctity of contract. They attend to the hard work of public legislation like adults. They pass budgets. They move forward by way of intelligent compromise. They get things done, even when it is no fun.

The pathetic carnival we have all been witnessing would be hard enough to watch from Bismarck, North Dakota, but this week I am leading a group of 30 cultural tourists on a journey through Jefferson’s Virginia and Washington, D.C. We spend all day every day talking in reverent and earnest tones about the Founding Fathers and Thomas Jefferson, about the Enlightenment and the Idea of America, and then as we wind down for the night we turn on the television sets in our hotel rooms and watch the latest political pornography in the national capital of the United States 237 years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and 225 years after the crafting of the Constitution. It makes you want to weep—or throw up—or just throw all the rascals out.

What happened to America?

If our schedule had been reversed, and we had gone to tour the Library of Congress one day later, on Tuesday, October 1, we would have found the doors locked, and a note on the door explaining that Congress had shut down the U.S. government for no rational reason.

The American people deserve better. We deserve so much better.

For what little it is worth, I believe that while there is plenty of blame to go around, among Democrats and Republicans alike and a Congressionally inept President, in this instance the principal blame belongs to the right wing of the Republican Party. If, as they say, the core issue is the Affordable Health Care Act—Obamacare—and the government of the most powerful country on earth is being shut down by those who just cannot bear to see it take effect, then those sour grapes absolutists bear a very heavy responsibility and I hope they will be held accountable by the American people.

Obstructionism is not ok. It would not be ok if America were a relatively minor nation. But we are not a minor nation, though we are now on a rapid downward spiral that is likely to damage our position in the world, reduce our international credit rating, and make other nations turn elsewhere for world leadership.

The Tea Party zealots appear to be willing to damage the lives of tens of millions of Americans to make their point, to stand by cheerfully while more than 850,000 federal workers are sent home without pay, to precipitate a breach in a wide range of public services from the National Parks to air traffic control, some of which are vital to our national life, and some of which involve the basic security of America.

Not only does the action of a grim and fanatical minority violate the core principle of American political life—majority rule—but it actually threatens the future of majority rule as a concept of civil society. We now begin to reach the point where serious political thinkers, at home and abroad, will ask: is the United States governable? The fact is that the United States is in the midst of a new civil war—being waged between those who like to pretend that they are the modern Samuel Adams and John Hancock heroically opposing taxation and big government, and those who realize that this is now the 21st century and America, with a third of a billion people, necessarily requires a large and complex national government.

Perhaps the obstructionists (the new political nihilists) have forgotten the mechanics of legislation established by our Constitution. Irrespective of the merits of Obamacare as national health care policy, the fact is that the law was enacted by both houses of the United States Congress (March 2010). Then that two-house Congressional legislation was signed into law by the President of the United States. That’s how our system works. Anyone who has taken a basic civics course understands this. You don’t have to agree with this or that law, but we can only function as a civil society if we play by the rules we have all agreed to honor.

After it was enacted into law, Obamacare was legitimately challenged in the federal courts. It went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. On June 28, 2012, the court issued its landmark decision affirming that the Affordable Care Act was indeed constitutional. At this point all three branches of the national government of the United States had endorsed Obamacare. That would seem to have settled the issue. It’s not about whether you or I like the health care law. It is about how laws are passed in a democratic society.

But of course that wasn’t the end of the story. In the 2012 Presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney declared—unmistakably—that the first act of his presidency would be to repeal Obamacare. No one who followed the election could doubt that this was his highest priority. In other words, Romney defined the national presidential election as a referendum on Obamacare. Romney lost that election—not marginally but decisively. So if the election was a referendum on Obamacare, the American people appear to have affirmed the law in spite of whatever misgivings they had about some of its provisions.

The Republicans of the House of Representatives have now voted more than 40 times to repeal or defund Obamacare. None of these bills has been seconded by the duly elected Senate of the United States. If, somehow, a repeal law passed both houses of Congress, President Obama would certainly veto it. Unless a 2/3 majority of both houses voted to override that veto, the health care reform law would stand. That’s civics 101.

I know some, perhaps many, of my readers think Obamacare is a disaster that will raise costs, reduce services, and make an already Byzantine health care system more cumbersome. They may or may not be right. Only time will tell. But that is not the point. No single faction should be permitted to hijack our national political system because it disagrees with duly enacted legislation. The intransigence of the Tea Party position is so great that there isn’t a chance in the world that President Obama can yield to their extreme demands. To do so would be to abdicate his role as President of the United States. It would be giving in to political terrorists. In other words, and ironically, the right-wing Republicans have ensured the survival of Obamacare by forcing everyone who believes in the American system to support it, irrespective of its merits.

My tour group is now on the bus for the hour-long drive from Richmond, VA, to Monticello. I reckon that the serene and rational Jefferson would oppose any national health care legislation whatsoever, but I am absolutely certain that he would defend the sanctity of our democratic process with his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor.