Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil

The level of distrust in Washington has sunk below the level between the United States and the Soviet Union during the deepest crisis of the Cold War.

In 1962, the United States detected missiles from Communist Russia being shipped to Cuba. Work had begun on readying missiles to reach many American targets.

President John F. Kennedy prepared an American response if the Soviets did not turn their ships around and take the missiles back to Russia. The world was at the edge of war.

The Soviets were willing to back away in the face the threatened American action. But, in return, they wanted the United States to remove its missiles from Turkey, right on the border of the Soviet Union. Kennedy seemed to refuse.

History has shown the Soviet Union was quietly promised that American missiles would be withdrawn in a few months, so that the United States would not be seen to have taken the action in connection with the Cuban missile crisis.

The Soviets took the Kennedy diplomats at their word and withdrew their missile operations from Cuba. Their trust was rewarded when, several months later, the U.S. missiles were pulled out of Turkey.

Now, look at the dispute in Washington that led to the government shutdown and the threat of default on U.S. debt payments.

House Republicans blocked votes on funding government and raising the debt ceiling unless they got concessions on defunding Obamacare and making other spending cuts.

President Obama said that he would not accept demands backed by holding the government hostage. As the crisis continued, he said that he was willing to negotiate on the matters raised by the Republicans only after they stopped blocking government funding and raising the debt limit.

The House GOP would have to trust that Obama would keep his word, promised publicly, and back off their action to end the government crisis, as the American public overwhelmingly wanted.

But they refused to extend to the president the same degree of trust that the Soviets had been willing to give the United States.

It would not be too far a stretch to say that the danger to the constitutional order in the United States of this year’s conflict was as serious as the danger to the world of the Cuban missile crisis.

Obama’s stance was meant to defend a widely held view of the Constitution as much as to protect his health plan or spending priorities. The issue is about the rights of a minority in the American system.

Some conservatives say that, because the United States is a republic, the rule of the majority is not required, and the minority must have virtually as much influence. Only in a direct democracy, like a Maine town meeting, does a majority rule.

The United States is a republic and that means that government is run by people elected directly to serve the public good. It does not mean that majority rule can be ignored.

The Constitution is clear that decisions are made by a simple majority, except in a handful of specific matters. It did not require that all decisions had to be made jointly by the majority and minority.

While ideally the two sides should negotiate and arrive at a common agreement on major issues, the minority should not be able to block any action with which it disagrees. Obama said he was willing to negotiate, but would not make up-front concessions on key Obamacare provisions.

That’s why the president rejected the offer by Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who wanted concessions on Obamacare from the White House to allow government to reopen.

If the president let the minority dictate to the majority, it would promote stalemate and possibly damage the ability of future governments to make decisions as foreseen by the Constitution. What would be the point of elections for president and Congress?

Obama deserves credit for defending the Constitution, because he refused to use it for his own purposes in the debt limit conflict.

The Fourteenth Amendment says: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, … shall not be questioned.” Some scholars say that provision was meant to prevent to Congress from reneging on already authorized borrowing.

Obama declined this advice and accepted that Congress can vote a debt limit that would apply to future borrowing, though it should not cause a default on existing debt.

In the end, what matters most is not Obamacare or the level of government spending. What matters most is protecting the Constitution and that means majority rule.

GORDON L. WEIL, of Harpswell, is an author, publisher, consultant and former public official.

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