Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The shutdown is the Constitution’s fault

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Dylan Matthews takes a good look at what the framers of the Constitution got wrong:

The government is shut down. Two million federal workers are having paychecks delayed, and 800,000 of them might never be repaid at all. Food safety inspections are on hold. Kids are being refused experimental treatments for cancer.

So whose fault is it?

You can say it’s the fault of House Republicans, who refuse to pass a continuing resolution that gives them more in the way of spending cuts than they wanted just two years ago, but which the Senate’s passed already and President Obama has said he’ll sign.

If you’re Ted Cruz, you’ll say that it’s the fault of Obama and the Senate for not being willing to trade the government staying open for Obamacare getting defunded.

If you’re a congressional process nerd, you’ll blame a budget process that has stopped working, if it ever did work, and which asks Congress to take far more actions every year than it can be expected to take in its currently hyper-polarized state.

But the deeper answer is that it’s James Madison’s fault. This week’s shutdown is only the latest symptom of an underlying disease in our democracy whose origins lie in the Constitution and some supremely misguided ideas that made their way into it in 1787, and found their fullest exposition in Madison’s Federalist no. 51. And that disease is rapidly getting worse.

What Madison got wrong

It’s hard to discuss these issues calmly, given that the Constitution and the Federalist Papers have taken on a Holy Scripture-like role in American political debate. One does not debate if they’re right, but only the proper way to interpret them on a given matter, which is then presumed to be correct.

We’re basically the only country that does this. Angela Merkel does not stay awake at night, asking herself, “What would Bismarck do?” Camillo Benso and Giuseppe Garibaldi are not assumed infallible when Italians discuss politics. Canadians do not cite John Macdonald when discussing tax policy. The only parallel that comes close is Venezuela and Simón Bolivar, which probably isn’t a comparison most Americans would embrace.

But obviously the Founding Fathers were wrong about all kinds of stuff. Today, few Americans think it’s acceptable to kidnap African people, ship them to America and then compel them through torture and beatings to perform agricultural labor.

Madison is also wrong about how best to safeguard democracy in a diverse republic. The thesis of Federalist 51 is that elections alone are insufficient to guard against the possibility that a government will encroach upon the rights of citizens, either by a majority faction oppressing others or through all-out tyranny. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government,” Madison writes, “but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

2 October 2013 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Congress, Government, Law

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