Congress is in deadlock about raising the American debt ceiling. From the Founding Fathers to Bill Clinton via Barry Goldwater, Luke Cahill examines the history of American politics and diagnoses the current impasse.
As Speaker Boehner, puts his debt plan to the House, the lower chamber, the Democrat controlled Senate, has already decided that they will not allow it to pass. As Congress struggles to agree on how much to cut before they raise the debt ceiling, fatal weaknesses are yet again open for all to see.
First the historical context is needed. The American Revolution was founded on the fear of excessive power, that of George III to tax his subjects without giving them any representation in return. After the first failed constitution, the Articles of Confederation, the need for a strong executive was apparent where previously the whole Congress had acted as the executive.
When drafting the new constitution, the Founders envisioned a revolutionary system of government that balanced the need for a strong executive while at the same time allowing for the separation of powers. They had created a government where no single branch (executive, legislative or judicial) would be more powerful than any other. This, while replicated at the state level, was even enhanced by placing state government far from large population centres. With few exceptions they were in the small towns, Austin, Texas or Olympia, Washington for example.
What the Founders’ new system did however, was force the parties to work together and compromise to get legislation passed that the president could sign. This worked well as the party system developed. There were pragmatic Republicans who are historically the party of Lincoln, the North, associated with the abolition of slavery. At the same time the Democrats were the conservative, even reactionary, slave owners in the South.
Up until the 1960s the Democrats had two wings, a conservative Southern wing and an increasingly liberal wing in the urban Northeast and Midwest. This was personified by the Kennedy’s. The pragmatic, country club, Northern Republicans had the likes of Prescott Bush, (George W. Bush’s grandfather) serving as a Senator from Connecticut and Henry Cabot Lodge served Massachusetts. The Democrats of the industrial cities were able to work around, sometimes ignore, the rural racist Democrats of the South and pass legislation with the Republicans. Cabot Lodge was the leader of the Republicans in the Senate; his successor today is Mitch McConnell (Republican – KY), you couldn’t imagine two more different people. What happen in the between?
Barry Goldwater happened. Goldwater served as a Senator from Arizona in the mid 60s and early 70s, and refused to support the traditional Democrats or “Dixiecrats” as was expected. Goldwater became increasingly disillusioned with the Northern half of the Party that was moving steadily Left under the aegis of Lyndon Johnson of Texas. Johnson was chosen by Kennedy to balance the Democratic ticket between his own liberal Massachusetts roots and Johnson’s Southern wing. Goldwater ran against Johnson in the presidential election of ‘64 and was roundly defeated with Goldwater carrying just the five Deep South states and his own of Arizona. Goldwater lost but had the last laugh; the conservative Southerners voted Republican for the second time in a century and the sky didn’t fall in. As Johnson forced the South to integrate black and white, coupled with his Great Society reforms, Goldwater’s message of “state’s rights” gained momentum and support.
As the consensus was breaking up, the conservative Republicans moved further and further Right, while the Democrats continued to move Left as begun under Johnson. The exception to this was Bill Clinton who stole the Grand Old Party (GOP) clothes from them. The GOP continued to move Right becoming ever more intransigent in the process. Ideological purity was the name of the game for both sides with the remnants of the Dixiecrats turning Red and what was left of the country club Republicans turning Blue.
This was seen when Chris Shays served as a Connecticut Republican in the House until 2008. Shays was socially liberal and pro-gun control – both traditional Democrat policies. Unsurprisingly, Shays was replaced by a Democrat with almost exactly the same policy positions. This ideological purity had the advantage of giving voters great clarity at the voting booth with a unmistakable distinction between the two parties. Amid all this change however the institutions remained the same.
They still forced the two parties to work together when they shared almost nothing in common. This naturally made getting anything done almost impossible because it gives so much power to individual members of Congress, from whatever party. Worse still, the whip system is weak, coupled with the whole House and a third of all Senators up for election every two years means the common good is often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Major presidential appointments of national importance requiring Senate confirmation are openly blocked for outrageous local reasons, even by the president’s own party.
Finally, this ideological purity has repercussions especially today. Congress is deadlocked, in intractable discussions as time slips away, on the debt ceiling deal. Both parties seem content in scoring cheap political points while blaming each other.
There are two options to break this constitutional impasse. Both parties can work with the system together, and become more pragmatic in their policies. However, the result of this is that much prized ideological purity is washed away. The other option is a much stronger executive and a move in the direction of a disciplined parliamentary system that can cope with the 24 hour news cycle and markets that move every few minutes.
So what’s it to be?
To read Luke Cahill’s other articles visit Luke Cahill’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast.