It´s Harry Reid´s Alamo too

Bohner´s attempted revolution also targets the Senate.

Harry Reid´s political interests are loosely aligned with President Obama´s but they are not identical. (For one thing, Reid cares a lot more about the 2016 election.) It´s striking that in the current showdown with John Boehner´s House Republicans, they are both standing firm. No surrender, no negotiation.

Charles I executionBoehner is, willingly or not, leading an attempt at not one but two constitutional revolutions, that it took the Westminster House of Commons 270 years to achieve. The first is against the President or monarch: to use the power of the purse to establish the supremacy of the parliamentary majority over the executive. Westminster started this fight in 1641 and won it with Charles I´s execution in 1649.

The second is to establish the supremacy of the lower over the upper house. After a trial run in 1832 over Grey´s Reform Bill, the House of Commons established its primacy over the Lords with the 1911 Parliament Act. The vistory came after a huge struggle sparked by Lloyd George´s redistributive ¨People´s Budget¨ of 1909. Boehner´s proposals would downgrade the Senate from an equal partner to a consultative appendage to the House, not only on the budget but on any controversial legislation like ACA.

Reid, like Obama, has no choice but to fight this putsch to the end. Fortunately for Senate Republicans, budget procedures do not allow filibusters, so GOP Senators are spared an explicit choice between their ideology and their status. Most to them by report didn´t think much of Ted Cruz´s pseudo-filibuster.

Neither Charles I nor the House of Lords had democratic legitimacy, so the changes were clear improvements. This cannot be said of Boehner´s campaign, which if it succeeds will upend a constitution designed on the principle of a balance of powers, in order to prevent the democratic tyranny of a president or congressional majority. Americans are brought up to think this scheme superior to the untrammelled rule of a whipped Commons majority, and on balance they are right.

Some will object to the comparison. Quite apart from the merits of their causes, Speaker Lilburne, John Hampden, Charles Grey and David Lloyd George were politicians of a different calibre to John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They had also thought things through.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

33 thoughts on “It´s Harry Reid´s Alamo too”

  1. Some will indeed object to the comparison, especially the “supremacy of the lower house” part. The Senate has sometimes been the more conservative body, and if the Republicans today happened to be in the majority in the Senate and a minority in the House, they would be doing the same thing from that tactical position. Most of these guys wouldn’t know the House of Commons from the common cold. The “power of the purse argument” is closer to the mark, but refusing to do necessary routine business as a blackmail technique is not to my thinking a clear example of principled use of that power.

  2. And why do the Republicans go for the throat now?

    They are already hard pressed to make any argument that they represent a majority of the nation. That’s the first prerequisite for making something like this stick.

    Right now, the Republican “majority” in the House is held together by gerrymander, pure wealth, and the ignorance or apathy of too many Americans about where their personal interests really lie. Taxation is the lottery of policy arguments for these people, as they’re certain they’ll one day become rich, too, if they just support cutting the taxes on millionaires today. Do the math, well, actually they can’t, which is why we’re in this mess…

    But the times — and the demographics — are changing. Even with all the dirty tricks and money in the Republican playbook, there’s only so far they can fake-up a minority of votes into a voting majority in Congress. Within ten years, the stands Republicans are taking today will relegate them to permanent political minority status — unless they can seize what is left of government, bend it to their will, and wall off legally any challenge to what will become an increasingly fascist turn in American politics.

    Maybe it’s time for the Democrats to quit demobilizing their base by pandering to their own set of wealthy donors? Will the people of the United States fianlly get a government for the majority or will it descend into dystopian libertarian fantasy? It may well depend on whether the Democratic Party stays the course of accommodation to these incipient evils or actually finds its spine, stored in the closet at DNC HQ along with the Mummy of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Ghost of Woody Guthrie, and arouses from its long slumber with the decadent debility of austerity.

    1. Did I really need to make it explicit that Boehner´s campaign is reactionary not progressive – as Mike argues, the desperate doubling-down of the loser? I hope they lose. I also think they will.

  3. Interesting parallels, and interesting that both Reid and Obama have finally now recurred to asserting institutional prerogatives (Reid implicitly, Obama explicitly), the mechanism of the 51st Federalist.

  4. The Parliament vs King conflict of the 1630s featured an autocratic monarch who was determined to make sweeping changes in religion and financing as befitted his Divine Right. Charles’ attempts to introduce his religious “reforms” into Scotland brought about a rebellion. The subsequent war gave Parliament the opportunity to clip his financial wings. Charles also attempted to use Ireland as a cash cow independent of Parliament, but his powerful Lieutenant there, Thomas Wentworth, was indicted by John Pym (leader of the Puritan forces in Parliament) and judicially murdered (Parliament may have been “the good guys” in this story, but they were not angels). Ireland also rebelled in 1641, and the quarrel over financing brought about the final break between King and Parliament.

    Charles’ policies look over-ambitious and even reckless in retrospect and led directly to Civil War (a.k.a. the War of the Three Kingdoms, as no place in the British Isles was spared) plus eventually his own defeat and beheading by the radical Puritans. Certainly, nothing done by this President remotely resembles the autocracy of the Stuart monarch. There is a massive diference in context, and in this case “Parliament” (House of Representatives) is not under the threat to its prerogatives that was visible to Pym and Hampden.

  5. Contra the OP, surely the current situation in the US proves that Presidential democracy with separation of powers is not in fact superior to Parliamentary democracy in a system with strong political parties (which the US did not have for most of its history because of the role of Dixie as swing vote). I don’t think the Framers would have disagreed – the office of President was fairly obviously designed for a national treasure like George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, not the winner of a partisan election.

    Sandy Levinson at Balkinization and Matthew Yglesias both have a lot of posts on this, but the short story is that the US is the only country ever to have made fully Presidential democracy work long-term, and it isn’t working for you any more.

    From a commonwealth perspective (the Whitlam-Kerr crisis in Australia is a particularly good example in this case, because Australia has two elected houses), certain rules of thumb are inescapable:
    – The power to vote down the budget includes the power to sack the Executive.
    – appropriating money is as mandate
    – if both houses have the power to vote down the budget, then the Executive needs a dual mandate
    – the only sensible way to break a deadlock between entrenched majorities is early elections.

    A British Monarch (or Australian Governor-General) acting on the advice of the Prime Minister has more formal power to govern without Parliament than a US President does to govern without Congress. All Parliament ever needed was the power to vote down the budget.

    1. Americans should pay more attention to France, also (since 1958) a country where power is divided between President and Parliament.

      The key author of the Fifth Republic constitution, Michel Debré, wrote it with two main aims: to allow a temporary constitutional dictatorship by de Gauille to deal with the Algerian crisis, and (in the longer term) to strengthen the Prime Minister as head of the government against parties in Parliament. He envisaged France returning to a reformed parliamentary system after de Gaulle. De Gaulle wrecked this plan by calling a referendum to make the President directly elected rather than indirectly, as in the Third Republic and as he had been in 1958.

      So now you have a permanently dual system, with the immovable elected President at the Elysée and the Prime Minister at Matignon, who has to enjoy a majority in the Assemblée Nationale. There is a Senate, but it´s a revising chamber like the House of Lords and doesn´t count for government formation.

      When the parliamentary majority has the same political complexion as the President, the Prime Minister is just his aide. (Name the current incumbent anybody?) It gets interesting when this doesn´t hold and the Prime Minister is of a party opposed to the President´s. There have been three periods of cohabitation. Nobody enjoyed it, and the French like their governments strong, but the Republic functioned pretty well.

  6. Can we have an end to this “putsch” crap? Seriously, you guys are the party that was calling the use of clipart bullets or targets in a bullet point list “violent” not so long ago, and now you’re calling the perfectly constitution decision of a co-equal part of the legislature to not produce legislation you like a “putsch”?

    How how is generating a continuing resolution you don’t like “a violent attempt to overthrow the government”? Even if they succeed the government won’t have been overthrown, and they’re just holding votes, not dropping bombs.

    “Terrorist”, “extortion”, “hostage taking”. You do realize that some of the people you’re using this sort of language in front of are, to put it mildly, unhinged? Maybe you want Boehner shot by somebody who’ll turn out to have been reading liberal blogs while not staying on their meds? Maybe you’re hoping somebody will crash a plane into the House chambers?

    To think you guys were actually complaining about “eliminationist rhetoric” not so long ago.

    1. Brett wrote:
      “You do realize that some of the people you’re using this sort of language in front of are, to put it mildly, unhinged? ”

      Yes, but that’s now true about virtually every legislative body where Republicans currently hold a majority. Sorta goes with the territory of folks wandering around in tri-corner hats, claiming to look for a “revolution” while drunk on the Tea of Dissolution.

    2. Putsches don´t typically involve shooting, though force is implied. I admit hyperbole. I think it was justified in the circumstances, viz. an atempted overthrow of the American Constitution by procedural means.

      1. By constitutional means, as a matter of fact. Hyperbole indeed, when you declare that legislation you don’t like would be an overthrow of the Constitution.

        1. Brett fumed:
          “By constitutional means, as a matter of fact. Hyperbole indeed, when you declare that legislation you don’t like would be an overthrow of the Constitution.”

          Irony alert.

          Dang, it’s not fair for the Dems to even appear to look like they’re using something pulled out of the Republican Dirty Play Book of Daily Political Misadventures, is it, Brett? Isn’t that the first thing out of a Republican’s mouth whenever the Dems suggest something these days? Isn’t that the beef you have with the ACA?

          Do you really miss sensing the utter desperation in your soul when you’re left to grovel in the ideological dust to find something to say and the only thing you can come up with is something as lame as that?

          The Republicans are acting as to good government as the lazy husband is to family values who sits home running up the credit cards while the wife works, but refusing to get a job. Somehow the wife is supposed to be taking care of all that — and keeping house with 3 kids to boot! Thanks for being a great dad, John Boehner. You’re a great example of what Republican family values are all about. Passive aggressive projection, apparently.

        2. It’s only ARGUABLY “constitutional”. The only way we’d know for sure would be if there were a case on point from the SCOTUS, or if the SCOTUS were to have accepted its mandate to include taking on a case such as this case on a timely basis (That’s something the Jay Court decided against from the outset.).

          I fail to see how the House could possibly square its control of the budget, with refusal to allow the administration to sign notes the House, by necessary implication, has already voted to authorize the administration to offer the government’s creditors, and the Full Faith and Credit Clause.

          The original Constitution contained much that was appreciated at the time for being temporary accommodation, much that emerged as anachronistic, and not a few simply silly bits, not just now but even then. The amendment process was supposed to be the means of fixing those flaws, but was laid out with insufficient foresight for how the success of the overall experiment might render it too unwieldy — not to mention, again, the Jay Court’s failure to anticipate that.

    3. It was the right which destroyed the ——— Rule. Hate radio in several genocides in the 20th century. The people endorsed the hideous usemetism of the inter War episode

  7. I can’t see how Boehner’s conduct threatens the equality of the upper and lower houses. Both can veto the other, and the Senate has superadded powers of confirmation. The reason that the houses appear unequal here is more transitory: the House is run by madmen and the Senate is not. Being certified crazy is a great advantage in any game of chicken.

    1. And let us not forget the president, who could simply veto the continuing resolution and would only need to hold onto a third of one of the houses of Congress. As you say, the correct dichotomy is not House/Senate or Congress/President, it’s crazy/sane.

    2. If Boehner wins, he´s forced the Senate to capitulate completely to the House agenda. That looks to me like marginalising it, for good.

      On paper the situation is symmetrical. A Senate with Ted Cruz as Majority Leader could play the same games against a Democrat-majority House led by Speaker Pelosi. But the election system for the Senate is designed to make it more conservative with a small c than the House, and the scenario is most unlikely. You could have two crazy chambers. But if only one chamber is crazy, it will always be the House.

      1. Well, less populist in its lunacy, anyway.

        I would have preferred you to deal with Scrooge’s larger point, going to the transitory nature of this crisis. I can appreciate how those unused to viewing things outside the bubble of the American experiment might see this as simply the Republican party going thru some party life crisis; I don’t agree. My own view is that it’s clearly not AIMED at being transitory, or at least not JUST transitory/

        The Tea Party seems awfully familiar to those, like me, who lived through and were conscious of the rise of Goldwater. It looks very like a coalition that includes what we saw as nativists, denialists, naysayers and Birchers. W.F. Buckley and circumstances quelled them then, but Buckley’s death coincided with Obama’s first election to the White House, and out they came, in new clothes and fortified by others whose grievances arose in the intervening 45 years.

        As has already been pointed out here, and is notorious, the Republican party as currently constituted simply cannot now hold out long-term hope for electoral success on the national level. Thus, it must change: either itself (and not just its brand; its already the Brand party, with all the superficiality that implies for substituting for policy), or the game. Like any established institution, it has institutional momentum, so greatly prefers the latter, and so must at least seriously ATTEMPT the latter before it seriously addresses the (more difficult, scarier, and quite possibly unattainable) former.

        If it fails now (which I too believe it will and should), due to that considerable institutional momentum and that even more considerably daunting alternative, I see as INEVITABLE that it will then proceed to go through more purges and more retrenchments, and that its elected representatives, whatever they call themselves, Republicans, Conservatives, Orange Pekoe, etc., will become increasingly procedural, obstructionist and obstreperous, for wont of any more promising tools.

  8. The first is against the President or monarch: to use the power of the purse to establish the supremacy of the parliamentary majority over the executive.

    This aspect of the current stand-off seems to me to be one of the good points; I don’t see the growing power of the executive/administrative branch over the elected branch as a good thing.

    1. The executive is elected too, president and vice president. The judicial is appointed by exec. with consent of legislative. You know this so…
      Smarter folks than I have pointed out that the GOP created the dominant executive but now finding themselves with a dwindling demographic base are pushing to squash the powers they spent decades building. They know what they want and don’t care who or what they hurt to get it.

  9. Ironically, or paradoxically, or something like that, there’s also a fairly large strain of crazy at the state GOP level that wants to repeal the 17th amendment, so that senators would again be appointed by state legislatures. That would make Boehner’s project more justifiable in a way, but of course as long as gerrymandering keeps so many of those state legislatures in republican hands it would also make it unnecessary.

    1. …there’s also a fairly large strain of crazy at the state GOP level…

      This is the point that seems to get lost in the larger discussion.
      Often I read that Republicans really don’t want to collapse the economic world order.

      I argue if you hold that opinion you are not paying attention:

      • The base hates the Fed and fiat currency.
      • The base hates science and the funding it gets via fiat currency.

      What better way for them to realize both these passions then to have US credit blow up?
      I choose the words “blow up” fully cognizant that I am claiming this is an act of terrorism agains me an my country– far greater than anything bin Laden could ever pull off.

      These people want nothing more than to tear the world down and replace it with “small government.”
      And I submit here: “Small government is better” is the biggest steaming pile of libertarian bullshit in circulation.
      A campaign against that blithe idiocy is sorely needed…
      In fact: The left has let that idea simmer and stink on the stove long enough…

      To help you get your thinking going on that…
      Try this essay by Andrew Feinberg (Gilman Scholar @ J.Hopkins U:

      The US still leads in biomedical research spending, and output measured by research publications, but it has been declining for over a decade. Funding for the NIH is now down to 2000 levels, taking inflation into account. NIH funding was doubled under presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton; it should be doubled again. Worse, its budget has been slashed by another 10 per cent for the second half of this year under “sequestration”, the US’s austerity program. And things are going to get worse. Sequestration will lead to an additional 9 per cent cut next year in overall government spending, and the non-profit Coalition for Health Funding reports that the House of Representatives is considering NIH cuts of a further 19 per cent, stopping work in progress and shutting down new ideas. Additional cuts will also strike the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the finger in the dyke against new pandemics – there is a bad one fulminating right now in the Middle East. The CDC is in the process of cutting virtually all of its funding to schools of public health for research on epidemic preparation. What of the horseman of war? Historians credit economic development and the growth of the middle class as the greatest engines of peace, and scientific advance is the greatest driver of this development. The return on investment for publicly funded biomedical research is greater than 30 per cent per year in jobs and technology.

      1. “I choose the words “blow up” fully cognizant that I am claiming this is an act of terrorism agains me an my country– far greater than anything bin Laden could ever pull off.”

        Words carefully chosen and agreeable to my own take on the situation. If anyone but the Republicans were doing this — women, Dems, Greens, Communists, African-American Gay Sunday School teachers — the militias would be marching on Washington right now. It’s subversion and the actions and inactions do in some cases rise to what would be considered terrorism in any other context these days.

        I think it inadvisable to treat it like we treat “terrorism” because that’s a crock of hooie, too. But I think people should very much be aware there are desperately crazy people involved who want to “take this country back…” From who? Did the Native Americans steal it back? I don’t think so and last I checked some rich folks owned nearly everything in sight…

  10. I don’t like these analogies because the struggle is nothing close to the same.
    If Boehner et al were fighting against the REAL Imperial Presidency, if this were about the Iraq War for example, then the analogy would hold. But this is about a minority in the house fighting against legislation agreed upon by the minority. The fact that Obama is involved is almost incidental (except for the larger theme of making him fail whenever possible).

    The REAL historical analogy, I think, is to Henry VII or Louis XIV. There is a subset of Republicans who believe that at least there little part of the land should be subject to a local law (based on their whim) rather than a single law throughout the land. Obama has to crush the barons to maintain a single country, to prevent the chaos of the Wars of the Roses or the Fronde.
    (And the analogy goes further. It’s very easy to look at that history, the phase of more or less absolute monarchy, and think it a terrible change, one step on the path to totalitarianism. I think this is gross anachronism. The issue at the time was not democracy; those societies were not yet in place for that. The issue was as I have phrased it — one law or many. And while many laws sounds great to anarchists or people who imagine some sort of confederation, the reality is that life under warlordism is rarely pleasant. One law has the potential to go horribly wrong, but it seems to be an essential step along the path to a better world.)

    1. ” if this were about the Iraq War for example”

      What, you mean the Iraq war which was authorized by Congress, conspicuously unlike the recent war in Libya? It’s an “Imperial Presidency” to seek and get Congressional approval for a war, it’s not an “Imperial Presidency” to ignore the refusal of Congress to authorize your war?

      Does “Imperial Presidency” have any kind of objective meaning in your world? Beyond, “Republican Presidency”, I mean?

      1. Fair enough. My bad in forgetting that authorization.
        I was going to use the Vietnam war as a better example, but was afraid it was too far back to be considered relevant. Should have gone with my first instinct…

        1. You want an Imperial Presidency, I suppose you could go with the rescheduling of numerous features of Obamacare which have black letter implementation dates in the law. Or the implementation of the unenacted Dream act. Or the Gulf drilling moratorium continued after Obama lost in court.

          Examples of an Imperial Presidency are not lacking, a lot of them are just too recent for Democrats to use.

          Note, though, I’m not claiming that Bush didn’t run such a Presidency. I’m not even claiming the Iraq war was a good idea. (It was an elective war, and such are almost always a bad idea.)

          I’m just irate about the effort to shove Democratic support for that war down the memory hole, and turn it into a unilateral action by Bush.

          1. The moratorium did not “continue after Obama lost in court.” This is not true. Drillers had to show they could contain a spill. Only Exxon could do so.

    2. Louis XIV was perfectly happy with legal diversity – France didn´t even have uniform weights and measures before the Revolution – as long as those who operated local institutions were subservient to his will. The same was true of Philip II´s Spain.
      The Tea Party are not content with reactionary Southern redoubts. They want, like the NRA gunnies and the antebellum slaveowners, to impose their vision on the whole country.

  11. Power and getting it. The Tea Party is able to magnify our faults but , since we are no good at lookng ay ourselves, might be OK

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