September 29, 2013

Barney Frank: Taking the government hostage

For all of their talk about revering the Constitution, the right-wing faction that has taken over the Republican Party shows a fundamental disregard for the principles of that document. They are substituting hostage-taking for the legislative process the Constitution sets out.

Under our system, legislation passes both Houses, is signed by the president or is enacted over his veto. If, in subsequent years, a new majority comes to power, the legislation can be repealed. It is not healthy for a society to engage in this on a regular basis; stability is important. The general rule of democracy is that if you lose after a fair fight, you do not immediately renew the battle unless there is an issue of the most fundamental principle involved.

Historically, we have had in America an alternation in party control of both Congress and the presidency. If the practice were that as soon as the party that had been in the minority regained the majority it repealed everything the previous majority had done, the economy would be in a shambles.

That does not mean people should forgo undoing policies they fundamentally oppose on grounds of principle. It will be a source of some uncertainty when congressional majorities that are newly formed repeal the work of prior majorities, but the system has to deal with that.

What subverts the intention of the Constitution, and is greatly destabilizing, is when a group gains control over one house of Congress but does not have the votes to change things by the legitimate processes and then threatens to shut things down unless it gets its way.

The most serious use of the "hostage" approach looms with Republicans in the House announcing that they will not vote to increase the debt limit or fund the government unless the president and the Senate agree to repeal the health care bill.

First, understand that part of what we are talking about here is paying for past debts. To those conservatives who say that they don't want to pay because it was we liberals who ran them up, my response is that I did not vote for the war in Iraq, I did not vote for George Bush's prescription drug plan and I did not vote for massive tax cuts for the very rich. I have voted to run up much less of the debt than they have.

That does not mean that either of us should refuse to pay it. What it does mean is that it is wholly illegitimate of them to say that unless they can succeed in repealing the health care bill -- for which they have neither the votes in the Senate nor the support of the president -- they will not allow other important functions of the government to work.

The point that is important here is that a democratic legislative system will not function if people decide that when they do not get the necessary votes through the regular process, they will hold unrelated government operation for ransom. Health care reform has been upheld by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court and was the policy of the winner in the last presidential election.

Mitt Romney, with the amnesia that he has employed so frequently, opposed the health care plan despite its resemblance to what he had helped enact in the Massachusetts Legislature. The public decisively chose President Obama over Romney, and the public also elected a Senate that does not support repeal of the bill. For the right-wing Republicans who control their party to say that they will not allow America to pay the debts that it has incurred -- none of which involves health care -- or fund the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration or the National Park Service unless they are bought off by a gift that they cannot earn legitimately is both a violation of the spirit of our Constitution and a threat to our economy.

Obama is absolutely right to say he will not negotiate with these parliamentary terrorists. It is entirely legitimate for Republicans to continue to campaign to repeal the health care bill, financial regulatory reform, an independent consumer bureau or anything else. But a process by which people deliberately inflict harm on our economy by refusing to allow the government to perform its essential functions solely to gain leverage over a policy issue which they cannot win by the normal processes is a threat to our constitutional system.

If that tactic works -- if people who do not like a previously enacted policy can threaten at any time that they will shut down the whole government until the majority that enacted that policy gives in to their minority view -- we will be in serious trouble.

The threat by the tea party to shut down the entire government and refuse to pay our debts because they lack the votes to repeal health care reform is an assault not only on the health care bill but also on our economy and democratic government.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank 

-- Special to the Telegram

 

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