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Extreme Right-Wingers Holding Economy Hostage

If America were a parliamentary democracy, today's right-wingers would be exiled.
 
 
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Will Republican House leader John Boehner lose his position as Speaker of the House after he failed to muster enough Republican votes on Thursday night to pass his ‘Plan B’ remedy to the fiscal cliff crisis, which would have raised taxes on million-plus incomes and slashed many non-military government programs including safety nets?

That is the top question in the fallout surrounding the collapse of his negotiating strategy on Thursday, according to a round of Washington-based press reports, including this one from the conservative National Journal recounting how Boehner called Republicans to a late meeting, announced that the Plan B vote was not happening, and then recited the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

On Friday morning, Boehner held a brief press conference saying a Republicans cadre would not vote for a tax increase—no matter what. He then attacked the White House and Senate Democrats for not acceding to his chamber’s uncompromising right-wingers. He said “the Democrats continue to run Washington,” and suggested that the Senate could just vote on yesterday’s House-passed bill that only raised tax rates on millionaires and severely slashed non-military spending. Finally, he said Merry Christmas and left.  

Where does this leave the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations? Many pundits are saying that the Democrat’s negotiating hand has been strengthened and that the White House should put military cuts and ending corporate giveaways—like oil and gas subsidies—back on the table, while, of course removing anything that undermines retirement programs.

“It is easy to overreact to these things in the moment, to overread them,” wrote David Kurtz, Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo. “But Speaker Boehner just put it all on the line. The entire nation was watching, and he was exposed. He knows it. His conference knows it. Anyone left in Washington who had doubts about this speaker’s clout now knows it, too. In a parliamentary system, he would resign and his party would elect a new leader. We don’t do it that way here … usually.”

A Constitutional Crisis?

But it’s really anybody’s educated guess what will happen next. Beyond all the scenarios that will be filling the blogosphere and media today, the Speaker’s posturing for the past six weeks of negotiations with the White House highlight much deeper problems with American democracy—because, quite to the contrary of what Boehner said Friday, a small number of extreme right-wingers in the House are holding the entire federal government hostage and creating ripple effects in the economy. 

Washington’s inability to reach a budget deal—even a bad one from the progressive perspective—is also indicative of why we may not see progress on gun control, why we have not seen anything meaningful on climate change, on campaign finance reform, or on many of the issues that are most consequential. 

One has to ask if our supposedly infallible U.S. Constitution is failing Americans because our system cannot react to national emergencies—by virtue of dividing government into bodies that habitually say no or sidestep issues by genuflecting to near-term economic and political interests. The Balkinization blog has discussed this precise point.

There are different kinds of tyranny—not just the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ but also the temper tantrums and ‘tyranny of the minority’ that cannot accept results of a presidential election, cannot compromise, and cannot return to debate anew. Beyond correctly noting Boehner’s antics as utterly irresponsible, the U.S. is facing a constitutional belwether.

America has never been a nation without political divisions. There certainly have been times when the Constitution’s intentional go-slow structuring of the three branches of government has prevented mob rule. But there also have been moments where presidents have lead—and achieved significant change—or begun that process. Will Obama find a way through today’s gridlock that we haven’t see so far?     

 
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