My wife says that President Obama’s negotiations with Congressional Republicans reminded her of the story of my bargaining session with a merchant on the island of Zanzibar more than forty years ago. I spent two hours bargaining with him for a Zanzibar chest and ended up paying more than he originally asked.
It’s not an unfair comparison. The tawdry turmoil of the last few weeks over an increase in the national debt ceiling left me with some broken images. One is the weakness of what we all used to regard as the most powerful office in any democracy on earth. Has it become so weak that it can be held hostage by an imbecilic faction in the Republican Party? I suppose so.
Somewhere in the back of my head I guess I always thought that the President, as the only officer elected by all of us, had the power to protect us in an emergency. When he addressed the nation a week ago, I thought President Obama was going to announce that he was using the inherent powers of the presidency to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally and save America from financial and economic disaster. I thought he might cite the 14th Amendment or something even more arcane. I thought Teddy Roosevelt would have done just that. I thought the critics would scream, but Obama would stand tall. But I was fantasizing.
Of course, Congress deserves even more condemnation. Some time ago (See my news commentary, The Filibuster in the Broken Senate, March 7, 2010), I wrote about the dysfunctional Senate. Now it is clear that the House is dysfunctional as well, for somewhat different reasons.
I covered the House for the Associated Press for a couple of years in the 1960s during the administrations of both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It was hardly a perfect institution. The Speaker, John W. McCormack, then in his 70s, seemed to struggle with oncoming senility. He was so lifeless and newsless that most of the time only a UPI reporter and an AP reporter bothered to show up for his daily news conference that lasted four or five minutes. When Kennedy was assassinated, I spent the day near McCormack’s side, fearful and ashamed that this man was now next in line for the presidency.
There were other members of the House who did not inspire confidence. Every week or so, the octogenarian Clarence Cannon of Missouri, who had served in Congress for forty years, would arise and proclaim in loud and unintelligible gibberish his thoughts on the issues of the day. His staff would then supply something intelligible for the Congressional Record.
Despite these quirks, I came away from the House persuaded that most or at least a good number of its members believed in the worth and traditions of their institution. I believed that they would rise above party in any national crisis and vote their conscience and the national interest. I also felt they would act with great concern about their own place in history. My mood was reinforced a few years later when the House handled the Watergate crisis with great sobriety, fairness, distinction and non-partisanship. But the House is not like that any more.
For twenty years as a foreign correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, I often found myself serving as a great defender of the unusual American political system with its checks and balances and its sharp division between the executive and legislative branches. (I was so out of touch in those expatriate days that I also used to boast about America’s highways.) I was always suspicious of the parliamentary system where the executive control of the legislature often led to a tyranny of the majority. The American system, I kept thinking, had an ingenious medley of parts like an old wonderful watch.
Now the watch is out of whack, and I am not so sure of its worth. The American system works when partisanship is weak and zealotry is absent, and we don’t have that any more. It has become fashionable in newspapers to talk about a Congress hampered by too many immoderates on the right and too many on the left, but I do not believe that. The problem of these times is the capture of the Republican Party by a faction of Know Nothing ideologues. The party reveled in this capture with great joy and folly. I think the Republicans made an enormous error at the beginning of the Obama Administration by deciding to oppose the President on all issues. Instead of serving as a cooperative force in legislation, the party turned itself into a haven for zealots. Until the party cleanses itself somehow, things will stay out of whack.