Responsibility: A Second Thought Experiment

Here’s a thought experiment that may shed a little light on current political disputes.

Suppose that the political events of the last six years had gone very much the other way, and arguably, if you like, more so: McCain was elected president in 2008, with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and that recent reverses led to a tenuously Republican Senate and an overwhelmingly Democratic House.

Suppose that in the end of 2009, at the President’s initiative, the Republican Congress had rammed through a monstrously long bill, far too long for anyone to read before votes were called, to set up a national warrant-less wiretapping program to construct high-speed Internet infrastructure, and—to save money which can then be used to pay for these programs—to house troops in private citizens’ homes (without their consent) rather than in barracks on military bases. Suppose the bill was passed in the dead of night on Christmas Eve, using every procedural trick to reduce the required majorities and avoid debate, including shouting down objections that the votes were in violation of the rules of both chambers.

Suppose that the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, and others sued to have the new law overturned, but somehow the Supreme Court declared that despite overwhelming evidence otherwise every provision of the new law was in fact entirely Constitutional.

And suppose that now, with the least egregious effects of the law (the provisions inserted to make it minimally palatable to the most-easily-influenced segments of the electorate) taking effect, and the infrastructure construction about to begin hiring, and since no budget has been duly passed and signed into law in years, the Democratic House of Representatives repeatedly passed a budget, an omnibus continuing resolution, and “piecemeal” continuing resolutions for various departments and agencies—anything that might have a chance of passage in the Republican Senate—but in all of them explicitly excluded any funding for the new warrant-less wiretapping program. They even began with unsolicited compromises on the issues that are traditionally “budget battlegrounds,” in an attempt to avoid friction with the other chamber. But the Republican Senate has refused to pass any budget or continuing resolution unless it includes the funding for the wiretapping program.

This scenario raises at least four questions.

First, would the media accuse the Democratic House of “holding the economy hostage” to their opposition to “a law they don’t like”? Or would they use the same terms to castigate the Republican Senate for its refusal to compromise for the sake of the government as a whole?

Second, at whose feet should primary responsibility for the impasse properly be laid? What the media says is not necessarily right—partisans of one party accuses one particular television network of blatant bias against it, while those in favor of the other party makes the same claim about essentially every other network—so the question of who we ought to blame if we were to think and act justly is similar to but not the same question as who the media would blame.

Third, should responsibility for the “crisis” be apportioned solely on the grounds of “current” rhetoric, or should it take into account the actions, and inactions, that led to it? After all, the Constitution requires that every appropriations bill—including every budget or “continuing resolution”—originate in the House of Representatives, and in the scenario the Democratic House has passed scarcely anything but continuing resolutions and proposed budgets since some time before the deadline.

And fourth, in such an impasse over a law that many claim to be plainly unconstitutional (though their opponents, of course, vigorously contest this claim), which side is actually keeping the oath that every member of Congress has sworn, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States?

This “thought experiment” is not primarily intended to argue for the justice or injustice of one side or another in the present political dispute. You may not see the scenario I describe above as parallel to our own; in fact, I have done what I can to make the scenario less ambiguous and more clearly “black and white” for the purposes of discussion, while I freely admit that many sensible and reasonable (or otherwise-sensible and otherwise-reasonable) people do not see “Current Issues” the way I do.

But so much of the rhetoric I have seen thrown around in the past week seems to assume without question or the slightest degree of doubt that if no compromise is reached, it is because one side—I need not name which—is acting like a group of petulant children. And the rhetoric is stated in such terms that it would paint the Democratic House opposing a surveillance program with the same black brush as it does the Republican House opposing the “health care law.”

Even if you do not believe that the above scenario is in any way like our own, I hope this “thought experiment” demonstrates that legislators can have valid reasons, if debatably-sound ones, for unpopular stands; they are not necessarily mere pettiness.

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