Democracy chewing on its own tail

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday October 16 2013 in Opinion
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We are witnessing an incredible performance in the United States that students of politics and political theory will be studying for a long time to come. It is the sight of a small rebellious right-wing group of Republicans holding the entire United States government hostage to a demand that they will only okay the financing of the government if its demands to amend the Affordable Health Care Act (Obamacare) are met.


The President and the Democratic Party are holding to the position that the Act has been passed by Congress, and the voters of the United States have approved Obamacare with the re-election of the President. The matter is settled. To try now to undo the Act by this or any other method is non-negotiable.


It must be noted that the way the U.S. system is set up – while the President does have certain powers, it is Congress that holds the purse strings – makes it easier for this impasse to happen there than with other democracies.


At the time of preparing this column, this stalemate is entering its third week of an across-the-board shutdown of the U.S. government, with only essential services in operation and other services – forced by circumstances – to be re-instated. Meanwhile, the stalemate has also impaired progress towards preventing the United States from defaulting on its debts because it has not received the authorization of Congress to increase the debt ceiling, the means by which the government services its debts. This, of course, could be potentially catastrophic for the U.S. but would supposedly have considerable impact on the rest of the world.


Now, I am not going to presume that I fully understand the ramifications of the impact of all of this. And, for this discussion, that does not matter. The fact that this stalemate or extortion can happen is worth examining.


So far, President Obama has stood his ground that the matter of Obamacare has been settled. The funding of government is a completely different matter and remains irrelevant to the ongoing function of government.


From my side of the table, the President is correct in his stance. The matter of Obamacare has been settled. The problem for House Speaker John Boehner, who controls the agenda of the House of Representatives and is seen as the supposed caucus leader of the Republicans in this case, the issue is not so cut and dried.


The division within the Republican Party over this matter is considerable. Most of the sitting members apparently believe, as does the President, that the matter of Obamacare is unrelated. The Tea Party extortionists are wrong to tie the funding of government to a law on which the people have already rendered a decision, however unpalatable it may be in some quarters. So, Speaker Boehner’s position may be in jeopardy when this matter is settled, although it may be a more internal matter for the Republicans.

This current state of affairs, however, does present a significant precedent. It is unlikely that the Tea Party Republicans will win this battle. According to several opinion polls in the U.S., the party will suffer significantly because of this action. The question that is left from this, however, is whether this strategy would work for other situations and with what outcomes.


For example, if the circumstances were similar in terms of party standings, could the Black Caucus use a similar tactic against a Republican president to obtain a change in the legal status or other laws that may affect African-Americans negatively? Could anti-abortion Republicans use the same method to obtain changes to abortion laws?


These questions are not as far-fetched as you may think. I can see the anti-abortionist (note that I use this term instead of the more political “pro-life”) making use of this tactic – and in many ways they have used it to a less monumental extent in how funding is provided to women’s organizations.


If African-Americans were to use this tactic to try to win much needed protection and support from the government, it is likely that they would face a more serious backlash that would generate into considerable racial tensions.


Nevertheless, I suspect that tacticians within the various issue subcultures will be looking at this with a view to its use to gain what they are looking for. What would that mean for a country that arrogantly touts itself as the greatest democracy on Earth?


It would be a considerable risk, and many elected officials in Congress would have to be very careful in how they proceed with such an action because the outcome could negatively affect public sentiment to their issue. Nevertheless, one cannot help but admire, to a certain extent, this attempt to achieve change. Further use of this tactic however, one can be certain, will be limited in the face of the need to keep caucus unity along party lines. And if it is tried, one can be sure that behind the scenes negotiating within the caucuses will be attempt to dissuade or discourage its use.

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