September 6, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
Much good has been done in Washington recently. I do not refer to the details of the debt reduction agreement, some of which we have already noted, but to the change it signifies—a change of course for the country. Turning around a fleet of aircraft carriers is child’s play compared to turning around the ship of state, but I believe we see before our eyes the signs of a great, ponderous movement of America in the right direction. We owe this hopeful movement largely to the determination of the constitutional conservatives within the GOP and to the good judgment of the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.
If you wonder why liberals are in a funk, why the President’s approval ratings are hitting rock-bottom, why he signed off on the debt reduction agreement in virtual secrecy, why he is being criticized openly by progressives and even being compared to the feckless Jimmy Carter, why there is disarray within the Democratic Party, you need look no further than to those who elected a GOP majority in the House, the courage of the Representatives who were elected, and the prudence of Speaker Boehner. He got almost everything he could reasonably have hoped for in the debt reduction agreement, producing the most radical reorientation of government in our generation. President Obama and the Democrats agreed to massive spending cuts, with more to come, and no tax increases.
This is a strategic and tactical disaster for the progressives and the Democrats, but, far more important is that the debt ceiling debate exposed what Speaker Boehner calls “the arrogant habits of Washington” and opened fundamental political and constitutional questions. The debate in Washington is shifting away from the favors government might bestow to the question of the proper role of government. As satisfying as his political victory must be, Boehner should be most encouraged by the opening now created to begin a broader conversation about big-government liberalism—really limitless-government liberalism—and why it must be reined in.
If those who brought this about remain resolute, there is a chance of bringing American government back within the bounds of the Constitution. Boehner and his Republican supporters are beginning to disprove an assumption held by progressives and liberals (and the media) since the New Deal: that government will always grow in size and scope, that all spending increases are permanent. This is a historic change, a movement toward re-establishing public recognition that there are some things it is better not to ask government to do (see Constitutional Lines). The ear of the public is now listening to the argument for limited self-government. If their elected representatives and other public leaders can continue to explain why limiting the power of the federal government is a good thing, we have the opportunity to form public sentiment into a durable governing consensus.
During the debate over the debt ceiling, much was said about how our government is so divided that it is dysfunctional, and how the solution to the perceived problem is bi-partisanship. Some went so far as to assert that the purpose of government is efficiency. Others argued or implied that a parliamentary system would be preferable to the constitutional one we have. After all, there are problems in the world, and our government is not solving them.
We continue to hear such assertions on a daily basis, but they miss the point. The fact is that our Constitution builds in division (see The Sense of the People); it deliberately makes it difficult to form majorities, and even more difficult to hold them. The Constitution’s purpose is not efficiency. Our constitutional government is not unified, as is, for example, the British Parliamentary regime (we note in passing that the British prime minister speaks for the government, while our president speaks for his administration, only a part of the government). With its federalism, separation of powers, bi-cameralism, and other inventions of prudence, our republican regime intentionally divides, checks, and balances power, so that,
in the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good.
Of course, this means that large issues cannot be quickly resolved. Changing direction in our constitutional regime is wonderfully and deliberately complicated.
The easiest and quickest way to form part of our constitutional majority is through the House of Representatives. Should we be surprised that the new majority in the House—formed but two years into the majority that won the presidency and both branches of Congress for the Democrats—should assert itself? And should we be surprised that the President’s response is to ask this newest majority to become bi-partisan (read “Democrat”)? Politics is not rocket science.
The election of Ronald 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 fifty years. Since then noisy debates have continued, with Republicans losing the Senate, then regaining it, losing the presidency, then winning the House, then losing it, and so on. We will need more than a few electoral cycles—and continued conversation and persuasion from the Republicans—to see whether the determination to limit government will take root in public opinion and become the principle of a new governing majority in American politics. In the meantime, let the divisions and the arguments for and against constitutional limits continue. Public reflection and constitutional deliberation is our strength, not our weakness.