Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Tea Party Constitutionalism

My esteemed colleague Pete, on the debt fracas, below: "the whole controversy was ugly and at most minimally productive."  To the contrary, I think this was the most important constitutional debate in memory (other than Obamacare, though I admit I am getting old and forgetful).  I wonder whether the Tea Party critics have ever purchased a car.  Do they pay the sticker price?  They used the power they had to educate the people on our disastrous situation.  Would the public be more aware of the crisis had a routine raise been voted through?

My high esteem for Senator Coburn has increased.  He exposed Grover Norquist's odd accounting on what constitutes a tax increase:  Cutting a subsidy (ethanol) would be a tax increase, in Norquist's view.  If that's the case, then reform without a tax increase is impossible.  To be fair, a cut in the subsidy would hurt the industry being subsidized and cost jobs, etc.  The press coverage of the new law emphasizes the temporary harm to the economy, caused by a cut in public spending, though the reforms will have a good long-term effect. 

As with Obamacare, the debt ceiling bill exposed Washington's ways.  What shocks us about Washington procedure is in fact routine.  Congress passes laws that no one reads through and that grant the real law-making power to bureaucracies.  That is the problem.  That is what the Tea Party, for whatever naievete it exhibits, has exposed:  Our routines are rotten.

Categories > Congress

Discussions - 6 Comments


Ken, there was a serious discussion of constitutional norms during the debate over the repeal of Obamacare. The public heard principled arguments about why the federal health insurance purchase mandate might be unconstitutional.

The debt ceiling debate, as it has occurred over the last month or so, has not featured a discussion of constitutional norms so much as a debate about long-term solvency and economic growth (which every side in the debate claims to be in favor of.) I'm not sure that the average(or even mildly right-leaning) voter who tuned into Fox News' less commentary-oriented shows is now any more likely to think that the departments of Commerce and HUD (to say nothing of a popular program like Medicare) are unconstitutional.

The debt ceiling debate, partly through bringing us to the edge of a government funding crisis, did bring a sustained focus on crafting a sustainable budget, and did give us a trillion dollars of back loaded cuts to discretionary spending that might even happen. Now those cuts did not include any fundamental entitlement reform, but they did include cuts to the (I would think) unambiguously constitutional Defense Department. That's not nothing of course, but it was an enormous amount of strain and not insignificant risk to get not very far, and we have (in the last few months) made little progress on winning over public opinion on either the funding levels or the structure of entitlement reforms. It isn't so much that the debt ceiling fight shouldn't have happened as much as a question of a) how best to deploy time and public attention going forwards and b) the enormous obstacles to enacting reforms that produce a sustainable budget.

Agree with the rest (especially about tax subsidies), though Coburn and the Gang of Six Deal gave up almost everything conservatives should be willing to give up on taxes without winning anything clear and substantive of entitlements, so I don't think it was a good deal.

At the worst, it was Bunker Hill for the Tea Party. A noble defeat where the other side realizes it can't keep "winning" them this way, and it showed the cause can stand up, fight, take a beating, give one--and still be around the next morning. (And just like at Bunker Hill, some sat on the next hill, loafing around and somehow not getting into the fight.)

But that's only if you view it at the worst. There is no reason to do so. It was a victory, pure and simple. Not a decisive one--but then we weren't supposed to be even able to stay on the field, were we? After all, when a ceiling has been raised 74 times and the MSM is against you, you aren't supposed to be able to do much of anything but what they want. Much less win on points. Therefore, cause for regret? No. It's a good--but not great--day for a Tea Party type, a worrisome one for a Republican uber alles man, and a sign of impeding doom for a Democrat one.

So be happy and of good cheer--and prepare for the next thing. Educate the public--you win. Don't--you lose. Simple as that.

Federalist, it doesn't have to be cause for regret, but the relationship of the energy expended in the fight and the results indicates the scale and nature of the challenge we are facing. We can win two or three such fights and not actually get anywhere near avoiding a debt crisis and a government-run health care system. You are right that educating the public is the key, but (as time, public attention, ad dollars, etc. are limited) that points to focusing more energy on winning over public opinion on a premium support version of Medicare and increasing the proportion of the population on consumer-driven health care plans. The events of Spring and early Summer indicate that, aside from Paul Ryan (and his plan is problematic), congressional Republicans have little interest in and no competence at accomplishing the former.

You've already said it, essentially, in the post that started this thread--but the "results" that were paid for were not just whatever bill was actually passed. It was the energy needed to change the inertia of the system. Hidden, invisible--and was an absolutely necessary expenditure, and one that is worth whatever price was paid. It should not be thrown away lightly.

The question for the future becomes how much staying power the Democratic method has when faced with repeated challenges. I'm not so sure about that. I could see a sudden collapse in a "preference cascade". I could also see a stalemate--but one that won't last forever, for obvious fiscal reasons.

Therefore, I think it is time for Tea Party types to decide on the end state--the "war aims" in Clausewitzian terms--and then adjust sail trim accordingly. Let the end state drive the tactics and compromise, and not the other way around. It took eight years to win the American Revolution. It took the Progressives a generation to get to the New Deal, and another generation to get to the Great Society. Great changes take time.

Or let me put it as another dreamer once did:

"..just as in the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant safely to pronounce anything impossible, so for the individual, since we cannot know just what are his limitations, we can hardly say with certainty that anything is necessarily within or beyond his grasp. Each must remember that no one can predict to what heights of wealth, fame, or usefulness he may rise until he has honestly endeavored, and he should derive courage from the fact that all sciences have been, at some time, in the same condition as he, and that it has often proved true that the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow."

Federalist, you are right about the inertia within the system. Given the energy expended and the results achieved, there might also be some lessons about where and how to best direct our energies

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