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This Shutdown Is Just Democracy At Work

People should start being honest about who is really unreasonable and radical in Washington.


Conventional wisdom in Washington is that our nation’s government was shut down by a group of uncompromising tea party extremists. While this is demonstrably untrue – the House of Representatives has now compromised on its position twice while Senate Democrats have refused to budge an inch – it masks a more important debate. That debate is over what type of democracy we want to live in: A real one or one on auto-pilot.

Official Washington regularly casts scorn on the “brinksmanship” that has characterized our nation’s fiscal debates for the last three years. There has been brinksmanship in recent years, but it’s only offensive if you wish to place our nation on perpetual cruise control.

Government on auto-pilot suppresses public opinion. It means Congress gets to tinker around the edges, but has few opportunities to change course. It is a radical change to our democracy, and fortunately not the nation we live in.

The Constitution grants the House of Representatives the power of the purse, and Congress has chosen to impose a statutory debt ceiling on itself. If these are extreme or irresponsible ideas then they should be altered, not simply ignored.

The President lectures Congress that “you don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job.” This misunderstands our government on every level. Congress’s job is, indeed, to fund the operations of government. But it’s a mistake to view the appropriations process as a rubber stamp on government. Rather, it is a vital part of our nation’s separation of powers.

James Madison explained, in Federalist No. 58:

“This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”

The American people have a grievance with ObamaCare. It is unfair, unaffordable and unpopular. Every day, new evidence is coming out about how unworkable the law is. If ever there were a time for Congress to use its power over the purse to obtain redress of grievance, ObamaCare is it.

That’s not extremism; that’s constitutional democracy.

Obama’s refusal to engage in our nation’s system of government extends to the next fiscal fight that will present itself: The battle over whether and how to raise our nation’s debt ceiling.

Our nation, by law, established a debt ceiling in 1917 as part of the Second Liberty Bond Act. The non-partisan Congressional Research Services explains the debt ceiling “imposes a form of fiscal accountability that compels Congress and the President to take visible action to allow further federal borrowing when the federal government spends more than it collects in revenues.”

In other words, it is as if a smoke alarm has been installed in our nation’s fiscal policy to provide the American people and their elected representatives the opportunity to periodically determine whether or not the house is on fire and, if so, what to do about it.

Don’t tell that to President Obama, however. “No Congress before this one has ever, ever, in history been irresponsible enough to threaten default, to threaten an economic shutdown, to suggest America not pay its bills,” he said last week.

This is, however, completely false. Gramm-Rudman was attached to a debt limit increase in the 1980s and played a role in getting our nation to a balanced budget a decade later. In 1996, an increase in the Social Security earnings limit for the benefit of senior Americans was attached to a debt limit showing that debt limits can also be used to increase spending.

So let’s just be honest about how official Washington wants our nation to function, and the fact that it has few similarities to the system set up by our nation’s Constitution and laws. Washington politicians, and their media enablers, want a system of government that is on perpetual cruise control and highly challenging to alter.

If they believe that would be a better system of government, they should take their case to the American people, amend the Constitution to remove the power of the purse from Congress and eliminate the statutory debt limit.

Perhaps such a proposal would fly with the American people. My guess is it would be overwhelmingly rejected. And, if that’s the case, people should start being honest about who really represents the unreasonable and radical faction in Washington.

Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.