Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

03 October 2013

A Non-Violent Coup d’Etat

[For the reasons why Boehner won’t let House Democrats—who comprise 46% of House members—vote, click here.]

While the whole world holds its breath, our “exceptional” Yankee government has partially shut down. As I write this, it’s sliding toward national default, in just a little over two weeks.

Financial markets and the rest of the world are nervous, and rightly so. Our own Yankee Wall Street has no idea how serious this artificial “crisis” is.

So I’m going to explain it as simply as I can. What we have, right here in our own American home, is a non-violent coup d’etat.

A rump group of less than 45 members of our lower House has decided that it can rule us Yanks all by itself. It claims, at most, a little over ten percent of the lower House’s 435 members. Using procedural tricks, and exploiting the GOP’s usual desire to act in lock-step, it is “offering” to “bargain” with the Senate and the President, to end the government shutdown or, in about two weeks, to avoid a national default.

What most people don’t realize is that this is not a one-of incident. It’s just the latest in a long series of coup attempts. We haven’t had a real budget in about three years. What we’ve had instead is a series of continuing resolutions, which fund our government and allow it to pay the debts it already has incurred. The latest such continuing resolution—on “offer” from the House right now—would last all of six weeks.

Think about that. The Tea Party and the House leadership are asking the President and Senate to “bargain” away their constitutional power for a few weeks reprieve from shutdown and default. Then, if the Tea Party doesn’t like the result, or wants to destroy something else in its long list of relentless negativity, it will declare another “crisis” when the next continuing resolution runs out.

Once that precedent is established, the Tea Party’s ten percent of our lower House will be firmly in control of this country. They will have achieved a bloodless (so far) coup d’etat.

Neither this President, nor any president, can agree to this extortion. To do so would violate his oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. He would be—and should be—impeached. What greater crime can a leader commit than allowing the Constitution to be subverted with his complicity?

As every graduate of high-school civics knows, the Constitution requires each House of Congress (Senate and House separately) to act by a majority, except in a few specific instances that require a supramajority vote (such as overriding a presidential veto). Nowhere does it permit ten percent of one House to rule our nation, whether by procedural tricks or by a series of continuing resolutions. Our Founders would be aghast at the very idea.

Right now, as I write this, there are enough votes in the House to pass a clean bill permitting the government to function and our existing debts to be paid. All such a vote would require is the House leadership to permit members of the GOP’s business or “establishment” wing to vote with Democrats.

That John Boehner will not do. And apparently the House’s procedural rules allow him to let the Tea Party (at most ten percent of the House) rule the GOP and the GOP the rule the whole body, contrary to the letter and the spirit of our Constitution, which requires majority rule in each House. (Or at least everybody thinks the House rules so permit. I am not a parliamentarian, but I think that, if the rules actually permit this, then, to paraphrase Jonathan Swift, the rules are an ass.)

So we have a shut-down government and are hurtling toward national default.

The reason is not the Affordable Care Act, the budget, or the deficit. The reason is not any single disagreement over policy. The reason is a small minority of one House, in its extremist zeal, trying to make a bloodless coup d’etat.

What is at stake is the most basic principle of democratic government: majority rule. The GOP and Tea Party have done this often enough now that the pattern is crystal clear. Either the Senate and the President call a halt now, or we accept a precedent that any tiny minority with strong feelings can rule this country, despite the views of the rest of us, by electing a few members of the House.

So this is not, as some may think, political theater. This is a deadly earnest but so far bloodless battle for the heart of our democracy—any democracy. Not only a slippery slope, but a bottomless chasm, yawns before us. If we step over the edge, we can tell Ben Franklin’s ghost that, after a mere two-plus centuries, we have lost our Republic without firing a shot.

P.S. The “Rule” That Isn’t

As usual, my instincts were right about the so-called “rule” that keeps John Boehner from letting Democrats vote and opening the government. It’s no rule at all. It isn’t even written down. It’s an “informal,” unwritten rule—really more of a recent practice trying to become a new custom.

Its inventor was former GOP House Speaker Denny Hastert. Remember Hastert? He was the pudgy-faced Speaker who served under Dubya, from 1999-2007. He looked, sounded and (from all reports) thought like your junior-high-school gym coach.

As part of a tightening of party discipline generally, Hastert introduced his eponymous “rule” that no bill would advance to the floor of the House unless it had the support of a majority of his own Republicans. Every bill that came out of the House thus would require a majority of the majority, not just a majority of the House as our Constitution commands.

That not-rule “rule” is at most fourteen years old. Even if 49% of all Hastert’s troops and all 100% of the Democrats supported a bill, no one would ever get a chance to vote on it. Like that junior-high-school gym coach, Hastert thought this “rule” improved discipline and spirit among his troops.

So our government is shut down, and a national default looms, because of an unwritten, recent “custom” of party discipline that contradicts our Constitution, prevents an easy solution to this impasse, and serves only to exacerbate partisan division and gridlock and increase universal frustration with our political system.

The nation’s welfare be damned! It’s the party that matters. Adolf Hitler, with his strong Nazi party discipline (enforced by summary execution), and Josef Stalin, with his similar Bolshevik/Communist party discipline, would approve.



  • At Thu Oct 03, 09:35:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thank you. I only wish such frank language were used more openly in higher political circles.

    The situation right now is truly frightening - if the tea party can effectively control the purse strings of the government against the majority vote, we have a democracy in name only.

    It's a genuine threat of oligarchy.


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