Tea Party and the Right

Is Constant Obstruction in Congress Putting Our Republic at Risk?

When legislatures stop functioning, executive branches tend to grab power in order to "save the Republic."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

When a government lacks the authority or the ability to govern effectively, to meet the urgent needs of its citizens, history has shown it will not long survive. There will be resistance, civil unrest, and if the government cannot respond, revolution.

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Most Americans would say it can’t happen here. Our government has been relatively effective and stable for over 200 years. We are, however, the exception when compared to the 30 developing countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa that have established constitutions based on separation of powers

All of these countries have had frequent breakdowns by coup d’etat or revolution ending in despotism. Typically, these breakdowns begin with a legislative branch that fails to act or actively obstructs badly needed legislation. When this happens, the president may act to accomplish what he deems are much-needed policy objectives using his executive power. This may start as a genuine effort to preserve a functioning government, but it can easily evolve into an abuse of power, which descends into a usurpation of power and then the dissolution of the legislature and dictatorship.

We may be seeing the beginnings of such a pattern in the United States. The series of manufactured crises, from the debt ceiling debacle to the sequester are indicators of a failing system. Congress is certainly in trouble when root canals, head lice and cockroaches are viewed more favorably, according to a recent PPP poll. (To be fair, Congress did beat out gonorrhea, meth labs and North Korea, and the cockroaches had just a slim two-point advantage.) Overall, Congress had only a 9 percent favorable rating with 85 percent unfavorable.

While the poll provided great fodder for comedians, the disgust with Congress has much larger implications for all of us. In our government, the principle of separation of powers makes Congress a co-equal partner with the President in governing our nation. If Congress fails to function in its constitutional role to set policy, approve spending, raise taxes, advise and consent to presidential appointments, oversee the results of its actions and hold the executive accountable, our system of government is impaired. If the dysfunction lasts long enough, the republic itself could eventually fail, as has happened in all other systems with similar constitutions.

When the President and at least one house of the Congress are of different parties, it may be hard to accept that both have a responsibility for governing, not just for obstruction. The recently ended 112th Congress operated more like those third-world legislatures that led to the demise of their elected governments. They passed the fewest bills of any Congress since World War II. The House wasted time on futile gestures such as voting 33 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Their self-created “crisis” over the debt ceiling damaged the economic recovery, which was just gaining steam, and caused a drop in our credit rating. The 113th Congress appears to be following a similar path as the current refusal to deal with the sequester threatens to throw the economy back into recession.

The Senate minority has filibustered virtually every significant bill or presidential appointment. The House simply refuses to legislate at all. The federal bench was damaged due to the number of judicial appointments being delayed by holds or filibusters. The holds by individual senators and the filibusters were intended only to obstruct as no alternatives were put forward – when they ended, often large bipartisan majorities have approved appointees.

It is truly urgent that members of Congress take action to protect and preserve the institution. Changing the filibuster rule in the Senate, so that not everything requires 60 votes would have been a positive step, but key senators did not want to give up their individual power despite the damage being done to the institution by endless obstruction. This rule, which is not part of the original constitution, allows minority control of the Senate. When abused, the institution's governing responsibilities cannot be exercised.

The Senate has so many arcane procedural rules, it has long required “unanimous consent” to move even the most routine business forward. This requires trust, reciprocity and collegiality – something that is missing from the Senate today. Every procedural step, every appointment, every bill is now subject to a filibuster. The business of the country is held hostage or sacrificed entirely to the whims of a single Senator or a disciplined minority.

The House has also given great power to a minority of its members. Since the 1990s, House Republicans have used a rule, created by former Speaker Dennis Hastert, that nothing would be brought to the floor for a vote unless a majority of the majority party supports it. This has allowed a small but vigorous minority within the majority to block needed action.

Thus in both houses, small, often uncompromising minorities can block the will of the majority preventing our government from dealing with the serious issues we confront. Meanwhile, the slow recovery and continuing high unemployment is caused by Congress’s refusal to take action on numerous jobs and infrastructure bills. The Congressional Budget Office makes this point in its report, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2013 to 2023.”

The legislative gridlock has led to calls for the President to take more executive action to get things done. It was even suggested by a prominent journalist that the President ignore the sequester law and act on the basis of his role as Commander-in-Chief of the military -- in other words, like a dictator. Here is Bob Woodward, speaking during the February 27 “Morning Joe” program:

"Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there saying, 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document?'" Woodward said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not gonna invade Iraq, because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?' Or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters' -- as he did when Clinton was President -- because of some budget document? Under the Constitution, the President is Commander-in-Chief and employs the force. And so we now have the President going out, because of this piece of paper and this agreement, I can't do what I need to do to protect the country. That's a kind of madness that I haven't seen in a long time."

Let’s be clear. This is a member of the elite media establishment telling the President that a law passed by Congress and signed by him can and should be ignored. This is how it begins.

The temptation of power is real, and so far we have been lucky to have had presidents who resisted that temptation. Now we have a President being excoriated for obeying the law, even though he has made clear he believes the actions required under the law are wrong and damaging to our country.

This President gives every indication that he will follow the Constitution and the laws as enacted by Congress, even though the actions (or inactions) of Congress are putting the country at risk. As the dysfunction continues, the damages mount, and the press and public call for action, can this President or some future President resist the temptation to ignore Congress and act on his own to “save the Republic?”

We should not count on executive restraint. It’s time for members of Congress to recognize their responsibility to govern. By refusing to talk to the President, to negotiate with the President – or with each other – or to allow votes on legislation, they are contributing to the disgust people feel toward their government, especially the Congress. It is strange how some members of Congress claim to revere the Constitution but hate the government it created.

The separation of powers was designed to prevent the abuse of power by safeguarding the interests of minorities. It has worked well to accomplish that goal, but the Founders did not anticipate the growing need of modern governments to provide effective policy leadership and implementation over a wide range of extremely complex issues. Minority rule rather than majority tyranny has too often prevented large majorities from acting. The result is gridlock and self-generated “crises” while important issues go unresolved. The separation of powers has thus far protected our liberties, but these will be small comfort if our democracy collapses in the face of problems it cannot or will not solve due to implacable minorities who block any attempt at solution.

Catharine Burke is an associate professor at USC's School of Public Policy and Planning.