Time to get medieval

It’s time to get medieval on the Bush administration. As England’s parliament found out centuries ago, a time of crisis is precisely the right time to demand from the executive as much as you can think of.

The Bush Administration is claiming that Congress should give it a clean bill setting up their proposed welfare state for financiers. (“Clean bill” is a nicely accurate phrase, being synonymous with “blank check.”) The claim is that the state of crisis requires this. If Congress knows its English history, it will draw the opposite conclusion. A time of crisis, when the executive really wants something, is precisely the time to push the legislature’s demands, on related or unrelated subjects, as far as possible.

The history of England’s parliament is the history of “supply”: a constitutional term familiar in Commonwealth countries but largely forgotten in the U.S. (and that’s a problem). When kings needed more money than their own lands could provide, they had to ask the nobles. When they got tired of asking the nobles, they started to rely on newfangled things called cities and rising social classes called burgesses and knights. Members of these groups were easier to negotiate with collectively than individually. The rest is history: the history of the House of Commons.

The process, as told in Volume II of David Hume’s History of England, wasn’t pretty. It was a matter of the Commons’ slowly finding&#8212and infuriated monarchs gradually admitting&#8212that its position gave it the power of “bargaining with the prince”&#8212precisely in times of war or other crises when the monarch really needed the money. Placing conditions on demands for emergency funds isn’t an abuse of Congress’ power. It’s the whole foundation of Congress’ power.

So: what Jonathan and Mark said. But let’s remember that hardball isn’t just good politics and good policy. It’s the lesson to be drawn from good history.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.