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Friday, October 4, 2013

James Madison and the Shutdown

In the last few weeks, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute wrote that Madison wouldn’t let President Barack Obama bomb Syria without authorization from Congress; Lyle Denniston of the National Constitution Center and Bloomberg View columnist Cass R. Sunstein each wrote that Madison would deplore the factionalism that has shut down the federal government; William Bennett and Christopher Beach wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Madison would scorn Congress and its staff members for exempting themselves from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act; and Jeffrey Anderson wrote that the health-care measure, though it is the law of the land, hasn’t been ratified by what Madison called “the cool and deliberate sense of the community.”
At The Washington Post, Dylan Matthews says Madison is behind gridlock, which is a bad thing:
But the deeper answer is that it's James Madison's fault. This week's shutdown is only the latest symptom of an underlying disease in our democracy whose origins lie in the Constitution and some supremely misguided ideas that made their way into it in 1787, and found their fullest exposition in Madison's Federalist no. 51. And that disease is rapidly getting worse.
The thesis of Federalist 51 is that elections alone are insufficient to guard against the possibility that a government will encroach upon the rights of citizens, either by a majority faction oppressing others or through all-out tyranny. "A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government," Madison writes, "but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."
Subsequent experience, however, has shown Madison to be incorrect. New Zealand, Norway, Israel and Sweden all have unicameral parliaments whose leader serves as the executive, with only a weak monarch or powerless president and (in some cases) the judiciary to check them. None of those countries have collapsed into despotism as a result. The UK, Japan, Germany, Spain, Canada and the Netherlands have upper houses of parliament that are formally much weaker than the lower houses, and each has the leader of its lower house serve as executive. No coups d'état ensued in those places either.
Michael Barone says Madisonianism is a good thing:
The problem was caused by James Madison. And by the 39 other men who signed the Constitution in 1787.

The problem, of course, is the government shutdown. It was caused because the Framers of the Constitution wisely provided for separation of powers among the three branches of government.
That understanding, together with the constitutional structure, imposes something like a duty of consultation between the president and members of Congress. Otherwise — and you may have heard about this — the government will have to shut down.
Republicans are furious that their members can’t defund or delay Obamacare. They want to see politicians stand up yelling, “No!” Theater has a function in politics.

But in fact, they’ve had a partial victory this year, a win that didn’t seem likely last December. By accepting the sequester despite its defense cuts, Republicans have actually dialed down domestic discretionary spending.

Democrats’ position now is essentially the sequester. They’re swallowing something they hate. No wonder Obama seems sullen.

So both sides will have frustratingly partial victories and not get everything they want. That’s how James Madison’s system is supposed to work in a closely divided country.