House Dares Senate to Play Constitutional Role

Monday we celebrated President’s Day honoring the birthday of our first president and indispensable founding father George Washington. Since 1862 the U.S. Senate has memorialized the day by reading Washington’s brilliant Farewell Address.

In it Washington disdains political parties. “They tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection,” he said. “To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable.”

We know what “government of the whole” is. We saw it briefly after 9-11. We might have expected it during the Great Recession crisis. Instead we have enjoyed political party alienation to the fullest extent.

In this contentious setting loom two critical decision points – deadlines to adopt a federal budget and to raise the federal debt limit.

If no new spending authority is approved by March 4, the federal government will shut down. Unless a higher debt ceiling is authorized before the current ceiling is reached in a few weeks, government will shut down and U.S. bonds will face default, since about 40% of spending, including interest on debt, must be borrowed.

No doubt a government shutdown would damage our limited economic recovery. Bond default would cause a worldwide financial crisis.

House Republicans, especially the 87 new anti-spending members, believe the pending deadlines give them extraordinary leverage. So, last week they sent the Democrat-controlled Senate a bill to fund government through September 30 with $61 billion in spending cuts.

Democrats are balking at the cuts and don’t believe Republicans will allow government to shut down. After all, the last time it happened – five days in 1995, Republicans, who controlled Congress, got the blame and lost the next election.

A great irony arises from the fact that the framers of the U.S. Constitution anticipated this situation. It was described in Federalist Paper #62 in 1788 by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as they explained the intended “stability” role of the longer-term, older member Senate versus the “representative” role of the every two-year-turnover House:

“The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government.”

The irony is that the very Constitution that new Republican House members so revere, expects the Senate to temper the House’s new enthusiasm and so bring continuity to government or, as Washington said, “government of the whole.”

This puts Senate Republicans on the spot.

Dare they rise to their Constitutional duty and help the Senate achieve compromise, as indeed, the Constitution itself was the result of the Great Compromise?

Or do they adhere to party doctrine and risk government shutdown?

Hunker down and tune in. It’s gonna be a jim-dandy.

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