Budget Battle Anarchy

The present character of the debt-ceiling debate undermines constitutional order.

As an early member of the Senate Budget Committee, when a billion dollars was a very great deal of money, I find the current Congressional approach to the national budget baffling on several levels. At the center of the fiscal showdown is one element of one major party refusing to acknowledge and pay for United States government obligations until major health-care legislation, passed by Congressional majorities and signed by a duly elected president, is repealed.

Back in the relatively saner twentieth century, once a law was passed it generally stayed passed, at least until it was proved unworkable. Today, nothing is considered final. Everything is subject to recall, re-litigation, and challenge, including efforts to refuse to pay for programs enacted by the majority.

James Madison would not be amused. If anyone can find any precedent for the current Tea Party rejection of majority government in the Federalist papers, I’d like to hear about it. It is one thing to observe and protect minority views and interests. It is quite another thing for a minority to refuse to acknowledge government by a majority of Americans.

But, of course, this isn’t merely about the Affordable Care Act. It is about government itself and, essentially, whether we should have one. We all know the tug and pull between Federalists and Republicans in the founding era over governmental reach and power. To my knowledge, supported by a lifetime of research and writing, not one of the Founders disputed whether there should be a government.

Anarchism comes and goes in democratic societies (see G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday). But the neoanarchism prowling the halls of Congress these days is of a different color. How much government we want and how to pay for it is always on the table of American democratic debate, as it should be. But eliminating government by refusing to pay its legitimate debts is not debatable. It makes no political or economic sense and is the desperate tactic of a minority, which refuses to recognize the rights of a majority of their fellow citizens.

The closest anti-government forces have come to producing any fiscal blueprint, the Ryan budget, was never taken seriously by those who understand federal finance and mainstream priorities. 

The largest majority of Americans has made it repeatedly clear that they do not choose to return to a Herbert Hoover, pre-New Deal, laissez faire society.

Many would argue there is a strong majority consensus that long-term restructuring of entitlement programs is required. Many would also argue—quite convincingly—that tax cuts for the top one percent of the wealthiest Americans are unsustainable. Clearly wars of choice fueled by dreams of “regime change” are not affordable. Many economists point out that a growing economy producing higher revenues will be the biggest contributor to debt reduction.

Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, Americans will clearly reject the obstructionists tactics of the minority and we will then return to majority government, where laws are passed and stay passed until their purpose is achieved, where those who don’t agree with majority consensus are required to put forward more plausible alternatives, and most of all where the national interest, not ideological or political sideshows, is preeminent.

Gary Hart was a member of the Senate Budget Committee from 1979 to 1987.

Image: Flickr/Kevin Burkett. CC BY-SA 2.0.