The Birth of the United States Parliament: Update

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Update:

October 7, 2013

When I first published this post back in August, I honestly thought that neither a government shutdown nor a Debt Ceiling default was within the realm of possibility in a world of rational people.  After all, I thought, in the end cooler heads would prevail.

I’ll never make that mistake again!

Now with the House of Representatives being held as political prisoners, because the GOP’s super-conservative faction (is cult too strong a term–maybe not! Look up the definition of a cult) has decided that the idea of majority rule as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution no longer applies to them, and therefore, they can stage an ideological and, therefore, legislative coup, violating both the Constitution and their pledge to defend it.  Of course, in their twisted logic, they believe they are defending the Constitution from the rest of us who are…well, just the rest of us.  The notion of majority rule can just go to hell.  They threaten to take the nation over the socioeconomic edge into a pit of unknown calamities, though, the economy crashing down around our heads is likely to be one major consequence.

After the election in fall 2012, I was thinking, ‘Okay, now we can get back to Congress doing some real business.  The next election is a long way off and I’m burned out with the 24-hour election cycle we were subjected to by the media, and anybody else with an axe to grind and a Twitter account.’  Now, I can’t wait for Fall 2014 to get here soon enough, presuming we have some semblance of an electoral process still intact, so through some miracle, this group of constitutional insurgents can get voted out of office.  Way out.  Maybe to be the new boots on the ground in Afghanistan as we pull our troops out.  I’m sure they and the Taliban would have most interesting debates over ideological sledge hammering.  The Taliban are against compromise, too.  Oops, did I just compare the tea party insurgents to the insurgents in Afghanistan?  Well, of course not.  I obviously just used the illustration to highlight the fact the tea party politicians are pathologically opposed to compromise.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who have been Extreme Thinkover readers since the beginning, The Sniffer and I are very pleased with the Affordable Care Act rollout.  Minute by minute, Americans’ demand for access to health insurance is building as a wave against those who would still deny them that.  And as the Exchanges get the opening kinks worked out, the Whiff’ and I both have this strong feeling the initial registration and enrollment period will exceed the everybody’s predictions, perhaps by the many millions.

And all the Republicans have to present to the nation as their alternative national health care plan remains that one blank piece of paper that Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell were so smug about in January 2010 when they met with the President.  Oh yeah, and then a month and a half later President Obama signed the bill into law on March 23, 2010.  Majority rules.

Now we are closer to devolving into a parliamentary morasse than when I posted this essay:

The Birth of the the United States Parliament

Sometimes you get an insight by reading what is going on someplace else in the world. I’ll admit that’s not a ground-shaking revelation, but the insight can be a point of sudden snap-focus into what is happening right here under your nose.

In my case, this “ah-hah!” moment came from reading a New York Times Op-Ed article by Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv journalist and senior political editor for The Jewish Journal. His piece, titled, “The Tyranny of the Minority” (2 August 2013) discusses changes that are taking place in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, regarding adjustments to the election laws that determine the threshold percentage needed to win a seat in body.  The specifics are not important to my point (you can read the article if you are interested), but the impact of the changes on how the minority parties will have to negotiate to have a voice caught my attention.

I contend we have in the United States House of Representatives not just the birth, but the rapid evolutionary growth of a parliamentary structure; a structure that, according to my reading of the United States Constitution, should never exist.

For some context, here’s what’s happening in the Knesset.  As the percentage threshold for winning a seat in the assembly is raised, the smaller parties that might have had just one or two seats under the old rule are now unable to win even a single seat.  Since these small parties represent minorities to begin with, such as different Arab groups, and more extreme Jewish conservative and liberal parties, they are faced with a huge dilemma.  How does a single party negotiate with one (or more) of the others to piece together a coalition that might mean compromising with a group they find politically distasteful?  And even worse, from their perspective, what if their only solution was to compromise and attach themselves to one of the mainline “Jewish” parties?

Rosner writes,

Raising the threshold was proposed on the theory that it could help stabilize Israel’s political scene by strengthening the two leading parties.  It may not: Some say it would only create more midsize parties. But at least it would fix the currents system’s main pitfall, which is to discourage compromise among all parties by encouraging the proliferation of small ones.

Huh? An image began to form in my mind sketching out what is happening in the House of Representatives as we observe the growing influence of smaller and smaller groups of politically narrowly-aligned representatives declaring that they are fighting perceived tyranny in the size and function of the Federal Government, but ironically, growing closer to manifesting and exercising a true “tyranny of the minority” over the House.

Rosner’s closing point was my snap-focus realization:

For a country as varied and complicated as Israel, the representation of minorities is crucial.  But for a country as varied and complicated as Israel, learning to compromise is even more important.

Bang! Substitute the words “United States” for “Israel” and what emerges is a powerful statement of what I see is the affliction that is now crippling the House of Representatives, and placing the balance of power of the Legislative Branch outlined in the Constitution in jeopardy.

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Hospital Food for the Mind

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I had to be in a meeting at lunch yesterday, so I didn’t get to write this post in my normal manner: thumb-typing on my smart-phone between bites of food.  I hope that doesn’t affect the quality of this piece.  I have a question:

Is the Presidency of the United States obsolete?

Up front, I’ll admit that perhaps if I was more impressed with President Obama’s performance in the job, and thought that even one individual in the Republican pack of hounds bounding and baying after his job was truly qualified, I might not even ask the question.  That not being the case, however, I am asking the question: Is the presidency, as one of the three constitutional pillars of our Union, now an obsolete political paradigm best abandoned and replaced by something else?  Or anything else?  Okay, that second question is just for the sake of rhetorical sarcasm.

Here’s my beef with the current situation.  I was always taught that the three branches of government in the United States were specifically designed to provide a balance of power, and that principle was to be inviolable to the degree that no one branch could supersede another.  This idea is based on that handy little political doctrine called the Separation of Powers.

Looking back over my lifetime, I generally place the beginning of this nightmare on the near-destruction of the Constitution by Richard Nixon. Ever since it seems we have been sliding toward a full-blown night-terror (the infamous pavor nocturnus) complete with an Incubus sitting on our national chest.

I would suggest that as the country has become more politically partisan, like a fault-line sending up waves telegraphing a coming earthquake, the election process has absorbed those toxic seismic waves. Apparently closest to the fault-line, the Judicial Branch has become all too often no more than a political equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, fought over by the conservatives and liberals in Congress–the Legislative Branch–the floor of each chamber devolving into an arena for ideological gladiating.  Only, there’s no emperor to give thumbs up or thumbs down, and so they just go on bashing each other, oblivious to their complete abdication of their Constitutionally sworn oath to govern.

Gone, in my humble opinion, is my confidence that the Justices of the Supreme Court (and the lower courts they oversee), selected once as the best of the best, view their appointment as a sacred duty to ensure their decisions rise above the everyday fray of American politics.  Yes, I know in reality it was never quite that noble, but in prior generations there was at least a generally accepted principle that the people who wore the robes and sat at that bench comprehended the high calling to which it is enshrined in the Constitution.

As for Congress, any sense of statesmanship is long gone, of dignity–even though they put on a show of being polite most of the time through gritted teeth–and an utter evaporation of “the loyal opposition.”  Factionism has permeated both the House and the Senate because factionism has permeated our political culture.  We have created this incubal demon through the ballot box and I fear it is only the beginning of a great price we will pay as a country for this gathering divisiveness.

So what of the presidency?  With the continuing deterioration of two of the three branches of government, can we expect the Executive Branch to weather the temblors and quakes unscathed?  I just do not think so.  The Legislative Branch’s warfare shows no sign of abating, even as we teeter on the verge of a double-dip recession. The Judicial Branch has become a hammer used by well-funded special interest groups to sledge their will into law, regardless of the damage they do to the rest of us.

Can one man or woman effectively push back the crumbling pillars to maintain the Constitutional integrity of the office of the President of the United States, like a reverse-Samson holding up the walls and roof, sparing the Philistines from certain death rather than bringing down the edifice upon them?  I don’t know the answer to this question.  Would the parliamentary model of governing be better?  Looking at all the problems our best international friends have (e.g., Great Britain) in managing that approach to government, I would not be eager to jump to that solution.  Nor would I ever endorse the fractured model currently used by the Russians in which two people apparently share power, but not really, but the one who is supposed to be the subordinate has figured out a way to actually control the other one and…  God protect us from a mess like that.

We are rushing headlong into another general election season (not that you can tell any difference, because the 2012 election has been in full-gear since the moment Barack Obama was declared winner in November 2008).  If I could work my will upon the country, the presidential election season would start six months before the actual date.  No one would be allowed to campaign.  No one, individual or business, would be allowed to contribute money to a candidate.  Political Parties would have to hold their nominating conventions 90 days before the election.  No political ads could air for any candidate or for any party until the parties had nominated their candidates.  I’ve got more to say on that, but it will have to wait for a later date.

Is the presidency obsolete?  Again, I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that it is every bit as battered as the other two branches of our government, and because of that, the future of the Republic is at stake.

I do hold one hope.  I continue to believe that we the people, by voting and exercising our right to petition our government, can reverse this earthquake of factionalism.  We are not beyond saving the Union.  But the day is upon us in which we must begin to do just that. To end this national night terror we must push the Incubus of Factionalism off of our chest, and, most importantly, wake up!