The Constitution does an admirable job of describing the way our government is supposed to operate, and nowhere does it say the House of Representatives has the power to shut it down in order to revoke a law that displeases it. In fact, it makes it clear that this is not how our system works.
And yet that’s exactly what House Republicans under John Boehner and Eric Cantor are attempting to do, through a series of arcane procedural maneuvers that involve a continuing resolution this Friday and an upcoming fight over the government's debt ceiling. The Republicans are attempting to use these administrative processes to revoke or neutralize duly enacted legislation, and perhaps to hijack the governance process in other ways as well.
The Constitution doesn’t give the House that kind of unilateral power. It does, however, include these words: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned … and all executive and judicial Officers … shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.”
What the Republicans are attempting to do is, therefore, both unconstitutional and a violation of their own sworn promise – an oath sworn on the Bible they claim to revere. Their consciences must decide whether their behavior is un-Godly, but the Constitution they swore to uphold makes it pretty plain that it’s un-American.
Veterans of Cold War red-baiting will remember the emotional charge carried by the phrase “un-American,” so we’ll define it carefully here: Working within our system of governance is, by definition, “American.” Opposing or impeding it is therefore un-American.
The last time the Republicans threatened to shut down the government they insisted we were in a “fiscal emergency,” which they erroneously claimed had been brought on by federal deficits. Republicans have never really been concerned about government debt, which is why it skyrocketed under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But deficits can be a useful rhetorical gambit for politicians pushing tax breaks for the wealthy.
The GOP's shutdown blackmail was unconstitutional the last time they tried it, and it’s unconstitutional now. The nation is now discovering what many people suspected all along: If you give in to the demands of blackmailers, they’ll just keep asking for more and more.
Republicans certainly got what they were demanding the last time around. The deficit's plunging at a faster rate than at any time since the massive demobilization that followed World War II, and is projected to be slightly more than half of what it was in 2009. That’s a Pyrrhic victory no politician should celebrate, since it has led to both higher unemployment and a lower gross domestic product.
This year Republicans aren’t even pretending to tie their shutdown threats to government spending. Instead they’re holding the government hostage over health care policy. Once you get beyond the rhetoric, that’s what “Obamacare” is: health care policy.
Health policy is now the issue over which Republicans are prepared to violate a sworn oath – and, depending on your personal beliefs, perhaps to endanger their immortal souls.
Fortunately, President Obama and his fellow Democrats appear to be standing firm this time and insisting that there will be no negotiations. They’re right – not because of the specific policy in question, but because they’re honoring their oaths to protect the Constitution.
If you’re a Republican and you’re tempted to write something heated right now, stop for a moment and consider: What if Nancy Pelosi’s House had threatened to shut down the entire federal government unless President Bush and the Senate agreed to implement government-funded universal health care?
Would you have been okay with that?
Many people think government-administered health care for all is smart policy. Every other developed nation on Earth has a system like that, after all, and every one of them pays far less in health care costs for much better coverage than we do. The economic data suggests that most Americans, and most private enterprises, would be much better off if Pelosi's Democrats had done exactly that.
But I suspect that most of us who support single-payer health care are nevertheless glad it wasn’t imposed through a legislative coup d’état like the one Republicans are trying to orchestrate.
We don’t know yet how this latest GOP gambit will play out. The extremists who run the Republican Party may or may not win Friday’s vote. Or they may concede on the continuing resolution, only to defer the hostage-taking to the upcoming debt-ceiling fight. Whatever happens, let’s hope the Democrats keep refusing to negotiate. The Constitution demands no less of them.
The Republicans lost. They lost the health care debate, which is why the law was passed. They lost two out of three branches of government in the 2012 election. (They lost the House too, by 1.4 million votes, but gerrymandering kept them in power.) They've lost politically, and they've lost constitutionally. They must not be allowed to trample on our system of government, to win by cheating what they lost under our system of government.
The cynical extremists running the GOP may very well think that elected officials who respect our country's democratic processes are suckers, Marquis of Queensbury fighters who don't know how to win. They're wrong. They won't win this way. They won't win morally, and in the end they won't win politically. There’s another, better word for the kind of people who prefer to play by the Constitution's rules: