Sometimes familiar sayings need to be updated. The description of someone as being “more Catholic than the pope” loses its force when some bishops think that they really are. Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner’s caving in to fellow Republicans – who insist that the government not be funded and its debts go unpaid unless the Democrats allow them to reverse the results of the last election without winning a new one – calls for a contemporary version of the phrase “a plague on both your houses.”
The crisis the country is now experiencing is a plague that is not “on” but “from” one of our houses.
Condemning both sides in a dispute is easy. It allows the avoidance of either knowledge of the facts or value judgments. Unfortunately, the current inclination to condemn all politics and politicians contributes to this approach.
There are reasons to be critical of our politics, although I believe that any thoughtful critique must include the behavior of the electorate. I share the view of many voters that there are people in Congress who shouldn’t be there; I just wish that those same voters had not put them there.
In the current case, imputing blame equally to the Democrats, who are prepared to compromise by accepting a spending figure in the budget resolution below what most of us would prefer, and a Republican Party held captive by its own right-wing, which insists that the government must shut down until they get what they want, makes neither moral nor logical sense. Representative government cannot function if we adopt the principle that whenever a particular group has lost a fair legislative fight they can later reverse that outcome by a form of sabotage.
If anything done by any legislative body at any time can be rescinded in the future, not through the result of an election, but by a form of extortion, constant chaos will be the result.
This basic principle is recognized by a large number of Republicans. No one doubts that if Boehner were to put the Senate version of a funding bill on the floor, it would pass. But his fear that his speakership would be endangered if he refuses to continue to give a veto over a majority rule to the tea party extremists has brought us to the current situation.
The problem with refusing to choose between the would-be hostage-takers and those who are resisting them is that it empowers the aggressors. The only way this deadlock will be broken, so our government can function and our economy can continue on the path to recovery, is if the speaker and other responsible conservatives find the courage to challenge the tea party. That will only happen if there is an adverse public reaction to these tactics that puts the blame not on everybody, but on those who are perpetrating it.
The right wingers, who are insisting that Boehner shut down the government and threaten not to pay the debts, sit in very safe districts. But there are a number of other Republicans whose seats will be in jeopardy if the public puts the blame for all this where it belongs – on Boehner and his majority.
Only when some of these vulnerable Republicans make the point to their right-wing colleagues that while their intransigence does not jeopardize their own seats, it may endanger their status as a majority, will Boehner get the political leverage he needs to do what he should have done in the first place.
It is relevant to note that a number of Republicans from non-right wing districts – Peter King of New York, Devin Nunes of California, Charles Dent of Pennsylvania, for example – have been pushing for an end to the tea party’s veto.
The refusal to make judgments in political disputes is not only damaging to our chances to resolve the current situation. To the extent that people – including the media – denigrate all politics and all politicians there are two negative results.
First, it suppresses voter turnout. Those people who are most dissatisfied, and who would vote for change, are less likely to vote when they are told there are no good choices and that nobody will pay any attention to them.
I am particularly troubled by some of the rhetoric that comes from my friends on the left, such as the Occupy movement, because voters who listen to their pronouncements that no politician can be counted on to do anything of any value are as effective in voter suppression as the laws being adopted in several Republican-controlled states.
Secondly, universal condemnation weakens the incentive for politicians to act appropriately. I know that elected officials ought to do the right thing because it’s right. I also know that we should all eat sensibly and exercise regularly. But in the absence of the certainty that these things will happen purely on their own, it is a good idea to think of ways to encourage them. In the electoral arena this means differentiating between those who are behaving responsibly and those who are not. If condemnation falls equally on the just and the unjust alike – or to be more precise, on the responsible and the extremist alike – then, human nature being what it is, responsibility will suffer.
If the Republicans can hold their majority while putting it at the disposal of the tea party, what we are now seeing is simply a preview of coming detractions.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.