Boston Herald | Op-Ed | Wednesday, October 16 , 2013 |
With the government shut down and the debt-ceiling deadline fast approaching, complaints about Washington gridlock have become more than cliche.
The idea that our leaders “aren’t doing their jobs” has become political meme — a notion gone viral in sarcastically captioned Internet photos, satirical tweets, and forwarded links to “Saturday Night Live” skits. (Even Miley Cyrus is twerking to the government shutdown beat.)
Given the media hysteria about a do-nothing Congress, what I am about to say will no doubt be regarded as heresy. But, here it goes:
I’m in favor of gridlock.
That’s right. I like gridlock. So did James Madison.
And so should you.
Because what the media like to call gridlock is, in reality, the constitutional notion of “checks and balances.” And it is the best way to preserve liberty in a free society.
Our Founding Fathers understood this. And they specifically created our Constitution to guard against abuse of power. They had, after all, just fought a long bloody war to free themselves from the tyranny of absolute government authority.
Drawing on the writings of Montesquieu, the Framers of our Constitution established a national government in which power would be shared among legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
Significantly, they not only divided power, they balanced power between the branches, so that no one institution would dominate. And they cleverly (they were a clever lot those Framers!) gave the branches overlapping powers so they could “keep each other in their proper places.” (Madison’s words, not mine.)
The Framers granted the House of Representatives the spending power for a reason. Put simply, the House is the most democratic (small “d”) organ of government. With membership based on population and representatives up for election every two years, the House is the instrument of government closest to the people.
The Framers did not intend that this “power of the purse” be merely clerical. To the contrary, they expected the House to use this power to influence policy — not only to fund the government, but to withhold funds as necessary to check the authority of the other branches.
As Madison explained in Federalist 58, the House has the power to “refuse … the supplies requisite for the support of government [in order to] reduc[e] all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches.”
That the Republican House is today using the power given to them for the very purpose it was intended is constitutional governance at its best. Indeed, the political dynamics of 2013 are pretty much what our Founding Fathers had in mind.
Many popular critiques of our current state of politics are, thus, based on ignorance of our constitutional design.
Others are based on a Machiavellian desire to ignore it. As professor Marcus Ethridge of the University of Wisconsin, has noted, liberal advocates for “change” are, inevitably, frustrated with our deliberately inefficient government. And so when they do not get their way, they scream “obstructionism” and complain that the system is “broken.”
But it is not.
This is how it is supposed to work. Gridlock prevents the majority from running roughshod over the minority. Gridlock ensures that dissenting voices are heard. Gridlock forces compromise — often painful compromise, but compromise nonetheless.
Moreover, in my view, the more time politicians spend fighting amongst themselves, the less mischief they can do.
Even those who don’t (as I do) affirmatively celebrate gridlock should at least acknowledge that it is part of our government’s constitutional design. Disagree with James Madison, if you must. But don’t pretend this wasn’t always part of the plan.