Jim DeMint Demonstrates What’s Wrong With Washington
Senator Jim DeMint demonstrated clearly today what is wrong with Washington.
Jim DeMint appeared on Morning Joe this morning and while much of the talk centered on his comments yesterday that Mitt Romney would likely win the South Carolina Primary, one exchange between the Palmetto State Senator and Jon Meacham sets forth exactly what’s wrong with Republicans in Congress today:
JON MEACHAM: Senator, you’ve been in Washington now for 12 years. Actually more, sorry. Have things changed in a palpable, tactile way in terms of getting things done from when you came in?
DEMINT: Yeah, I think they are more polarized. And it’s a contrast I try to make in the book because we really no longer have a shared vision. I mean, I know from business that you have people coming from different directions, they can work together if they have shared goals and a shared vision. But now we have the tension between those who want centralized power, government control of education, health care, transportation, energy, and Republicans, who are I think finding their footing around their core principles of we need to devolve power out of Washington, we need to decentralize, because that’s what makes America work, is the bottom-up approach.
So saying to compromise now, and I use this analogy a lot, is just like a coach telling his team to go out and work with the other guys and cooperate with them. The Democrats are there to beat us. Every policy that they introduce is to centralize power. They are completely incapable of cutting spending because their constituency is based on dependency on government and those who want more from government.
DeMint has this wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. For one thing, we’ve seen in the past year that it is possible to get Democrats to agree to cut spending. It happened in March and April during the showdown over the Fiscal Year 2011 Budget and then again in August during the showdown over the debt ceiling. Both deals ended up including spending cuts and no tax increases. Going back further to the Clinton Era, we see evidence that a Republican Congress and a Democratic President worked together to cut spending, reform welfare, and pass groundbreaking trade agreements. During the Reagan Administration, a Democratic House and a Republican President passed tax cuts and tax reform. So, whether its partisanship or pure defeatism, DeMint’s suggestion that nothing can be agreed to simply doesn’t square with history.
DeMint also talks about the tension that exists on Capitol Hill between Democrats who favor an activist government and Republicans who do not. He speaks about this as if this some kind of new, groundbreaking development when, in reality, he is describing the central tension that has existed in American politics since the founding of the Republic:
It’s a debate that started more than 200 years ago around George Washington’s first cabinet table as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton squared off in debates over the proper role of the new Federal Government. Though he was not involved int he 1787 Convention, Jefferson quickly became an advocate of what we would today call a strict constructionist, most importantly with respect to the limited power that had been granted to the Federal Government. Hamilton, on the other hand, believed in a strong and energetic central government. He believed that Congressional power was not necessarily limited to the powers expressly stated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which was an interesting change for him since he had argued along with Madison and Jay in The Federalist Papersthat the Constitution created a government of strictly limited powers.
The history of the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian debate, and the history of the early years of the Republic, tends to put the lie to the simplistic view that America prior to 1914 or 1932 was a paradise of laissez-faire government and strict adherence by the Federal Government to confines of the Constitution. In 1791, for example, President Washington proposed on Hamilton’s recommendation the creation of what ultimately became the First Bank Of The United States. Jefferson and his allies in the cabinet objected to the bill on the ground that there is no authority granted in the Constitution for Congress to charter a bank. Hamilton and his allies argued that the powers of Congress expanded beyond the mere specific grants of authority in the Constitution and included “attainment of the ends…which are not precluded by restrictions & exceptions specified in the constitution.” Washington sided with Hamilton, the Bank bill passed through Congress easily, and within the first two years of the new government’s existence the strict constructionist view of the Constitution had suffered a significant, some might say intellectually fatal, defeat.
The lines aren’t always clearly drawn, but in many respects the arguments that Democrats make today are the arguments that Hamilton and his successors made in those early days, while the Republicans have taken up the battle waged by Jefferson, Madison and those that followed them. The parties have actually switched sides in this debate. The Republican Party can trace its lineage to the Whig Party, which grew out of the collapse of the Hamilton’s Federalist Party. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, started life as the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th Century that the GOP became known as the small-government party while the Democrats became the activist government party. The names and the players may have changed, but the arguments remain largely the same. As James Joyner put it in a post in December 2010, the Constitution is an invitation to struggle, and that struggle has been going on from the beginning. DeMint is completely incorrect to characterize this divide as something new to America. In fact, this debate couldn’t possibly be more American.
This gets is to the final, and perhaps most egregious, problem with DeMint’s comments this morning and the attitude that they represent. DeMint characterizes his job as winning in a way that requires Republican principles to prevail. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this because it is what partisanship is all about and it too is as old as the Republic. His dismissal of compromise, though, completely misses the point of governing. By it’s very definition, governing means compromise in some respect. Neither the GOP nor the Democrats are going to get everything they want out of a piece of legislation because, even when they are in the majority, the opposing party is still able to take advantage of procedural rules to block, or at least slow down, legislation. Additionally, even a party caucus is never 100% unified on every single issue, meaning that intra-party compromises will have to be made, often to satisfy regional differences between North and South, East and West.
Furthermore, the Constitution itself was the product of compromise, in some cases morally questionable compromises that permitted an odious institution to continue for another 80 years as the price for national unity. In it’s very structure, the documents requires compromise between the Executive and Legislative branches and Article One itself is designed to require compromise between the populism of the House of Representatives and what the Founders believed would be the more sober, less impassioned, deliberation of the Senate. Additionally, while the Constitution didn’t necessarily contemplate the existence of political parties (although Madison’s discussion of factions in Federalist No. 10 comes very close to the concept), it is drafted in such a way that requires parties that disagree with each other to compromise with each other to accomplish even the most basic functions of government. The fact that DeMint does not seem to recognize that, or simply chooses not to acknowledge it, is perhaps the best example seen in a long time of what’s wrong with Washington. The divisions have always existed, and compromises have always had to be made. What’s wrong now is that the divisions are still there, but there’s an increasingly vocal faction on one side that refuses to even consider compromise on basic issues life budgeting, which is the one thing Congress is required by the Constitution to do every year.
A final thought. Earlier on in the interview, DeMint mentions that he is working toward the goal of a 5-6 seat GOP gain in the Senate. Were this to happen it would leave us with the GOP in power by a 53-47 majority, exactly the opposite of what we have right now. How, exactly, does DeMint think he or any other Republican is going to get anything done in that body without compromise? Surely, the Democrats have been watching the manner in which the GOP has utilized the filibuster and other Senate rules to their advantage for the past three years. Does DeMint not think that the tactics that his side have been using so well since 2009 will end up being turned against them when they’re back in the majority? Of course they will. When it happens, Mitch McConnell, DeMint, and the others, will have two choices. Either they will have to compromise to get things done, or they will end up in the same position as the Senate Democrats who have gone 989 days since passing a budget.
Governing means compromise, it’s as simple as that.