Tea Party has Constitution to blame for debt-ceiling compromise

John Baker Contributor
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Despite the Tea Party’s success at forcing the Washington establishment to face the nation’s deficit and debt problems, many Tea Partiers are dissatisfied with the debt-ceiling compromise. They want greater, faster change. Rapid change, however, is exactly what the Constitution is designed to prevent.

Fortunately, many Tea Partiers did not understand how the Constitution frustrates fundamental change during the recent debt-ceiling debate. Otherwise, many would not have fought so zealously against raising the debt ceiling. That zeal, which stiffened House Republicans’ backbones, gave the Republican leadership a negotiating edge.

Those Democrats who unjustly called the Tea Partiers “terrorists” were “terrified” that the Tea Partiers were willing to not raise the debt ceiling. Members of the Tea Party Caucus in the House were right to insist that the government could avoid default without raising the debt ceiling. That intransigence meant that no deal was going to occur on terms anywhere near what Democrats wanted.

Still, the Constitution erects structural roadblocks to every zealous movement, no matter how worthy, e.g., the campaign to end slavery. The proponents of change must demonstrate over time that their goals reflect not merely the passions of the moment, but reasonable policies acceptable to a majority of Americans.

“Moderates” seem to assume that zealousness and reasonableness are incompatible and, therefore, that zeal has no place in our constitutional system. But reasonableness and zeal are not inconsistent, although the two do not necessarily coincide in the same person. Their combination, however, can produce great leaders. Ronald Reagan, for example, combined a long-standing, zealous anti-communism with a reasonable yet forceful approach to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Americans forget that at the time of the founding, democracies were considered to be the worst form of government. The American Constitution changed that understanding by demonstrating that a properly structured democratic republic could cure the disease that had destroyed ancient republics, namely instability caused by “factions,” i.e., special interests.

As explained in The Federalist, “The instability, injustice, and confusion, introduced into the public councils [by factions] have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have every where perished.”

As The Federalist notes, historically “petty republics” have swung between anarchy and tyranny. Such instability is really “terrifying.” Think the French Revolution and many later “democratic revolutions,” like Castro’s Cuban Revolution.

Our Constitution does not suppress factions. Rather, the separation of powers and federalism control the ability of any faction to effect immediate, dramatic change, thereby causing instability. The Constitution’s process of orderly change necessarily slows all changes.

The victory by President Obama and the Democrats in 2008 was all about “change.” The constitutional structure, however, has slowed the immediate, permanent changes that many of his supporters desired. As a result, many Obama supporters have become disillusioned.

The changes that the Obama administration did achieve gave rise to the Tea Party. In “democratic” systems that don’t have constitutions like ours, the swift rise of such an opposition could have been crushed, as in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.

It doesn’t matter whether sweeping changes are proposed by liberals or the Tea Party. Both will be submitted to “the refining process” created by the Constitution. That means that neither movement can succeed in one election cycle. It will take decisive victories over the course of several election cycles for either to prevail.

Dr. John Baker is a Distinguished Scholar at Catholic University Law School and a Professor Emeritus at LSU Law School.

John Baker