Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chicken crap vs. bull shit

What a difference a few weeks make! It seems like only yesterday that teary-eyed Speaker Apparent John Boehner was denouncing as "chicken crap" the Democrats' insistence on bringing to an actual vote their proposal to limit the extension of the Bush tax cuts to those earning less than $250,000 a year.
Boehner's reasoning was that, since the measure had merely been a campaign promise of the President of the United States and had the support of 55% of the House and 53% of the Senate, it was only a symbolic political publicity stunt since we all know that it is a sacred fundamental tenet of American democracy, or at least has been as long as the Democrats control the White House and Congress, that no bill may ever be adopted unless it commands the support of 60 senators so why bother trying.

With barely a face-saving pause for a breath, the GOP leadership then began excitedly discussing its plans in the coming Congress to hold repeated votes to repeal health care reform, explaining that while it was true that such a proposal has no chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate much less being signed by the President, it was not merely symbolic because its passage by the House would "put enormous pressure" on those other branches of the government to go along. They also pointed out that repealing health care was a campaign promise of many of the newly elected Republican congressmen.

The other completely non-symbolic bill with no chance of passing that the GOP is rushing to introduce early in the new session is an amendment to correct the otherwise perfect Constitution by permitting any piece of legislation duly passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President to be repealed by a vote of two-thirds of the state legislatures. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, apparently operating on the theory that drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa makes a person Leonardo Da Vinci, alternates paeans to James Madison (“James Madison IS the U.S. Constitution, and he provides such a role model,” Cantor said) with gushing enthusiasm for this effort to undo everything Madison wanted.

As I have pointed out before, Madison in fact saw the power of the states as the greatest threat to sound representative government and sought to break down state loyalties, check the state legislatures' propensity for mischief, special-interest politics, and corruption, and curb their influence in the new national government in a number of ways.

Both symbolically and substantively, the Constitution established a direct relationship between the people and the new Federal government, rather than exerting sovereignty solely through the states as under the Articles of Confederation. It was no coincidence that the ratification procedure called for conventions of the people, rather than the state legislatures, to vote on adopting the new Constitution. The Constitution likewise gave the Federal government direct taxation power over individuals, apportioned representation in the House by population rather than equally among the states, made Federal legislation the supreme law of the land that all state courts must abide by even when it conflicts with state law, and enumerated in detail powers that would henceforth be forbidden to the states and reserved to the "general government."

Madison wanted even further restrictions on the states, insisting in particular that representation in the Senate be apportioned by population just as in the House. (This is usually treated by textbook histories as simply a big-state versus small-state issue — populous states such as Virginia would naturally favor a system that gave them more clout in the Federal government — but in fact, as Gordon Wood persuasively argues, Madison was much more concerned by the fact that equal representation of the states in the Senate would make that body a mere creature of the states.)

And far from approving of the idea of a state veto over Federal legislation, Madison wanted exactly the reverse — a Federal power to "revise" state laws. When the convention rejected that proposal, Madison was convinced that the lack of a Federal veto would prove so fatal a flaw in the system of government that the entire new Constitution would fail in practice.

One of the other great promises of the new GOP House leadership is that they will read aloud the Constitution at the opening of the session.  Let's hope they read the whole thing for a change.