Much has happened in Washington recently, most of it good. I do not refer to the details of the debt-reduction agreement but to the change it signifies. The logistics of turning around an aircraft carrier concern me less than the new direction the big boat will face. Changing course is incredibly complicated. But now, I believe, we’re moving toward our target.
Beyond even the reawakening of national priorities under President Ronald Reagan, this debate over what House Speaker John Boehner calls “the arrogant habits of Washington” has produced the most radical change in my lifetime. The debt-ceiling debate exposed Washington’s ways, opening fundamental constitutional questions. We owe this great accomplishment to the determination of the conservatives within the GOP and to the good judgment of Boehner.
President Barack Obama and the Democrats have agreed to massive spending cuts, the biggest spending cuts in 15 years (with more to come), and no tax increases. This is a strategic and tactical disaster for the Democrats. But, far more important, we have shifted the debate in Washington away from the favors government might bestow and to its proper role. This changes our political climate not only for the next few election cycles but for a generation to come. The ear of the public is now listening to the argument for self-government. If we can explain why limiting the power of the federal government is a good thing, we have a chance to bring American government back within the bounds of the Constitution.
If you wonder why the liberals are in a funk, why the president signed off on this agreement in virtual secrecy, why he is being criticized openly by progressives and even compared to the feckless Jimmy Carter, why there is disarray within the Democratic Party, you need look no further than the courage and prudence of Boehner. He got almost everything he wanted. But, as satisfying as such a political victory is, Boehner should be most encouraged by the opening now created. He and his allies can now begin a broader conversation about big-government liberalism and why it must be reined in. Boehner and his Republican troops have disproved an assumption held by progressives and liberals since the New Deal: that government will always grow in size and scope, that all spending increases are permanent. This is a major change.
During the debate over the debt ceiling, much was said about how our government is so divided that it is dysfunctional and how we need more bipartisanship. The truth is that our Constitution builds in division. If the framers of the Constitution had wanted a unified government that would quickly represent the will of the people, they would have established a regime in which its various parts were elected at the same time by the same people, as in the British Parliamentary regime, for example. It is easy to form majorities in democratic regimes. But ours is a constitutional regime. In a new world, the framers established a new order, a republican system in which each part is elected by the people, but not by the same people at the same time. Members of the House are elected in districts every two years, while senators are elected in states every six years, their elections staggered so that only a third of them begin their terms after each election cycle. Presidents are elected every four years (by the Electoral College).
Divisions are built into the Constitution so that the natural divisions that arise in a free regime might become, over time, less willful and more rational. James Madison and the others wanted “the cool and deliberate sense of the community to prevail” over an impassioned and willful majority opinion. With time, the framers thought, this system would refine and enlarge the public’s understanding of policy. Of course, this meant that large issues could not be quickly resolved; indeed, they should not be quickly resolved.
The election of Reagan in 1980, along with the first Republican Senate majority since 1954, alerted us to divisions in the American electorate that had been muffled during the prior 50 years. Since then, noisy debates have continued, with Republicans losing the Senate, then regaining it, then gaining the House, then losing it, and so on. We need a few more electoral cycles—and continued persuasive conversation from the Republicans—to see whether this opening toward smaller government will be the next unifying wave in American politics. Let us hope so, as we continue to share Madison’s “honorable determination … to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.