I’ll leave it up to others on the blog to discuss the merits of the compromise on taxes and unemployment benefits recently reached between President Obama and Congressional Republicans. For what it’s worth, I’d probably vote for it were I a member of Congress (shudder), but I do think that the Republicans could have pushed a little harder on certain measures.
What fascinates me as a student of American history are some of the reactions, and also some of the reactions to the reactions. First of all, Congressional Democrats have rejected the measure in a non-binding caucus vote. This has caused Jim Geraghty to ponder:
Normal? No. But I think this is a positive development in a way.
Simply put, we are a constitutional republic that has separate and independent branches of government. We are not a parliamentary system in which rank and file members of a party must fall in line with its Prime Minister. Now, unfortunately some political scientists in this country, including the only political scientist to ever ascend to the presidency, have wanted (and continue to desire) America to become a parliamentary democracy. And in some ways our political system has morphed into a quasi-parliamentary system, though we have not entirely abandoned the original constitutional design. So when I see members of Congress defying the President, even when he is a member of their party, it bring a smile to this originalist’s heart.
I don’t think that there should be an automatic assumption that Congressional leaders within the President’s party should do his bidding. The Framers designed a system containing separation of powers and checks and balances in part to constrain the government’s ability to act. Naturally on most occasions Congressional partisans will fall in line with presidents with which they are ideologically aligned. Nonetheless, Congress is not and ought not be a rubber stamp. In short, Congress should have a mind of its own.
I’m also slightly bemused by some of the reaction to the compromise. I happen to think that we often make a fetish of compromise (as my post on the “No Labels” movement can attest), yet at the same time we do have to be pragmatic on occasion. Leftists can stomp their feet all that they want, but the fact of the matter is that they were destroyed in the most recent national elections. They were defeated at every single level in this country, and now President Obama must make a deal knowing that Republicans will soon be taking over the House, and his negotiating power will be even less in a couple of weeks than it is now. If Democrats should be furious, it is with themselves, because they spent two years enjoying a hefty Congressional majority in both chambers and did nothing about the tax issue while they had the chance.
On the other hand, there seems to be an undercurrent on the right that President Obama should step out of the way and just let the Republicans do what they want because that is the will of the people, as expressed by voters in November. Well the will of the people two years ago was that Barack Obama should serve a four-year term as President of the United States of America. Last I checked, he hasn’t quite served two of those years. While it’s true that the political momentum is certainly with the GOP right now, that doesn’t mitigate the fact that Barack Obama is president, and they’re not going to able to accomplish anything without his consent. As I said, I think that Republicans could have done better, but conservatives are delusional if they think that they could have gotten everything they wanted.
This is yet another example of the Constitution in action. Staggered terms of office means that one tidal wave election generally can’t shift the country radically in one direction or another. Just look at the Senate. If the Republicans had won every single contested Senate seat this year, they’d still be one-vote short of a filibuster-proof majority, and eight votes short of a veto-proof majority. In other words, this is just one other element of the constitutional design that is meant to keep the government from becoming overly responsive to the whims of the majority.
So for now, just about everybody is frustrated from getting everything that they wanted. Even another election in two years will not necessarily resolve this conflict. So we’ll get to replay this whole episode not just in two years, but every two years after that.
Ah, America. What a country.