Over the past month the United States has witnessed a portion of one section of the bicameral legislature use the threat to not pay creditors as a means to express their displeasure over a law. This displeasure over the law “Affordable Healthcare Act” led to a government shutdown. Traditionally Congress has used the power of the purse “Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7” as a means of checks and balances relating to use of public funds “tax dollars”. What the Republican Party has just engaged in is not that. Instead House Republicans attempted to circumvent the three branch federal system by threatening to not pay global creditors unless the Senate and Executive altered the implementation of a law that was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court.
The most vocal Republicans over the last month have repeatedly made reference to the Constitution in their rhetoric. An example of this is Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) who stated, “Today, the constitutional conservatives in the House are keeping their word to our constituents and our nation to stand true to our principles, to protect them from the most unpopular law ever passed in the history of the country — Obamacare — that intrudes on their privacy and our most sacred right as Americans to be left alone.”
This statement is especially appalling for multiple reasons. The most apparent is that it infers those who disagree are somehow unconstitutional. Secondly, the law is far from the most unpopular law ever created. I need only point to the Non-Intercourse Act or Prohibition to prove that. Perhaps most ridiculous is the idea of a Republican calling an individual mandate unconstitutional. Anyone alive during the 1990’s understands that the entire idea of an individual mandate was a Republican free market alternative to single payer or employer mandates.
Beneath the obvious politicizing and hyperbole is a deeper contradiction. The idea that one half of one branch of the federal government could use credit payment as a way to force a law to be changed is against the sentiments and purpose of creating a federal government. There was a time in American history when states “or their representatives” could simply refuse to follow through with proposed ideas and agreements made in the legislature.
That era of American history was governed by the Articles of Confederation. By the end of the Revolutionary War it was clear that a system of governance lacking a judicial or strong executive branch was not enforceable and had no guidance. The idea of national governance under the Articles was simply not realistic. The goal was to create a nation, a union, to “join, or die”. Alexander Hamilton said that the Articles were “neither fit for war nor peace” and “make our union feeble and precarious”. Hamilton went on to say “The confederation too gives the power of the purse too entirely to the state legislatures. It should provide perpetual funds in the disposal of Congress-by a land tax, poll tax, or the like”.
The problem was that states were simply not following through with proposals made in the legislature. James Madison said that the failure of states to comply with constitutional requisitions was “fatal to” the Articles. The United States lacked unity of purpose and action. This is the very premise for created a Federal government with a bicameral legislation, judicial branch, and executive. House Republicans engaged in the same type of disunity that facilitated the need for a strong central government in the first place. It is one thing to debate a bill, but it is another to threaten default.
For all of the talk about constitutional conservatives we can be certain of one conversation that never happened. There was never a conversation between Hamilton and Madison that involved either saying “we need to create a federal government that is non-enforceable with an anemic executive that does nothing to resolve the inability to work cohesively as one union”. If one half of one branch of the federal system can derail functions or simply refuse to participate then why doesn’t the United States simply revert back to the Articles of Confederation?
This is far beyond a left versus right discussion. We are no longer discussing modern political parties. This discussion is about protecting our institutions. We are not the only people having this discussion. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde made comments suggesting that the continual “governing by crisis” is not only a detriment to the U.S. economy but global finances. The key word in her statements was “uncertainty”. Lagarde said “It will be essential to reduce uncertainty surrounding the conduct of fiscal policy by raising the debt limit in a more durable manner”. Lagarde is channeling Hamilton in this statement. States, or their representatives, cannot act individually or subvert the overall union of the federal government. If this happens, as Hamilton suggested, America will not have credibility.
Harvard Professor Joseph Nye has appealed to lawmakers using a different perspective. Nye believes that the continual use of default as threat and short term fixes damages America’s “soft power”. Nye told Reuters that “It’s clearly very damaging for American soft power in the sense that the reputation for effective management of government and of the world’s reserve currency is hurt”. This inability to function cohesively on the federal level projects other inadequacies. The President said it best when addressing reporters about the 16 day shut down, “It's encouraged our enemies, its emboldened our competitors, and it's depressed our friends who look to us for steady leadership."
Remember, our enemies “or competition” do not just belong to terrorist organizations. The Chinese state news agency Xinhua recently said “U.S. Treasury bonds may no longer be safe for investment” and suggested that it was “perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanised world”.
To imply that anything which has transpired over the last 16 days is somehow in the spirit of the constitution or the premise of our federal government is not only misconstrued but paradoxical to the post-Revolutionary conclusions of our forefathers. The actions of House Republicans, the disunity, the uncertainty, and the inability to work as a cohesive dependable body is exactly why founders like Hamilton and Madison called for a central government in the first place.