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Is Constant Obstruction in Congress Putting Our Republic at Risk?

When legislatures stop functioning, executive branches tend to grab power in order to "save the Republic."

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When a government lacks the authority or the ability to govern effectively, to meet the urgent needs of its citizens, history has shown it will not long survive. There will be resistance, civil unrest, and if the government cannot respond, revolution.

Most Americans would say it can’t happen here. Our government has been relatively effective and stable for over 200 years. We are, however, the exception when compared to the 30 developing countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa that have established constitutions based on separation of powers

All of these countries have had frequent breakdowns by coup d’etat or revolution ending in despotism. Typically, these breakdowns begin with a legislative branch that fails to act or actively obstructs badly needed legislation. When this happens, the president may act to accomplish what he deems are much-needed policy objectives using his executive power. This may start as a genuine effort to preserve a functioning government, but it can easily evolve into an abuse of power, which descends into a usurpation of power and then the dissolution of the legislature and dictatorship.

We may be seeing the beginnings of such a pattern in the United States. The series of manufactured crises, from the debt ceiling debacle to the sequester are indicators of a failing system. Congress is certainly in trouble when root canals, head lice and cockroaches are viewed more favorably, according to a recent PPP poll. (To be fair, Congress did beat out gonorrhea, meth labs and North Korea, and the cockroaches had just a slim two-point advantage.) Overall, Congress had only a 9 percent favorable rating with 85 percent unfavorable.

While the poll provided great fodder for comedians, the disgust with Congress has much larger implications for all of us. In our government, the principle of separation of powers makes Congress a co-equal partner with the President in governing our nation. If Congress fails to function in its constitutional role to set policy, approve spending, raise taxes, advise and consent to presidential appointments, oversee the results of its actions and hold the executive accountable, our system of government is impaired. If the dysfunction lasts long enough, the republic itself could eventually fail, as has happened in all other systems with similar constitutions.

When the President and at least one house of the Congress are of different parties, it may be hard to accept that both have a responsibility for governing, not just for obstruction. The recently ended 112th Congress operated more like those third-world legislatures that led to the demise of their elected governments. They passed the fewest bills of any Congress since World War II. The House wasted time on futile gestures such as voting 33 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Their self-created “crisis” over the debt ceiling damaged the economic recovery, which was just gaining steam, and caused a drop in our credit rating. The 113th Congress appears to be following a similar path as the current refusal to deal with the sequester threatens to throw the economy back into recession.

The Senate minority has filibustered virtually every significant bill or presidential appointment. The House simply refuses to legislate at all. The federal bench was damaged due to the number of judicial appointments being delayed by holds or filibusters. The holds by individual senators and the filibusters were intended only to obstruct as no alternatives were put forward – when they ended, often large bipartisan majorities have approved appointees.

It is truly urgent that members of Congress take action to protect and preserve the institution. Changing the filibuster rule in the Senate, so that not everything requires 60 votes would have been a positive step, but key senators did not want to give up their individual power despite the damage being done to the institution by endless obstruction. This rule, which is not part of the original constitution, allows minority control of the Senate. When abused, the institution's governing responsibilities cannot be exercised.

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