US beyond ken of Founding Fathers
America has greater problems than this latest budget showdown, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
THERE was an amusing moment on Thursday when a hapless BBC newsreader told viewers that General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the US Army, had said "that they needed to resolve this budget shit shutdown as soon as possible". It was, of course, a slip of the newsreader's tongue, but he was speaking for millions who are wondering if the stand-off between the Obama administration and the House of Representatives is liable to play merry hell with the global economy.
Now, so far, all that's happened is that 800,000 federal employees have been sent home because there will be no money to pay them until a spending bill is agreed. Such shutdowns are, in fact, an old American custom. This is the 12th since 1981.
There were four during the Reagan presidency and two under Clinton, one of which lasted for 21 days. The federal roof didn't fall in and the world wasn't terrified, but then both Ronnie Reagan and Bill Clinton were seasoned negotiators who accepted that a legislative-executive power struggle was an integral part of the American constitution and regarded such challenges as a call to roll up sleeves and strike a deal with the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
So Republican Reagan and Democrat Tip O'Neill good-humouredly hacked out a deal that reduced some of Reagan's spending cuts as – with the parties reversed – Clinton and Newt Gingrich agreed on welfare reform and tax cuts.
It's different today. America is distressingly polarised politically, and partisan commentators are hurling bricks at each other with labels like presidential arrogance or Tea-Party craziness.
"I will not negotiate," was what President Obama said for openers to Speaker John Boehner at the beginning of the shutdown, as he went on TV to tell the world he was in no way to blame. And many Republican are in the same mood.
What's scaring the world is that, in a few weeks, when government borrowing exceeds $16.7 trillion, Congress will have to raise the debt limit or have the US government default, which could lead to a plunging dollar, rocketing US interest rates, freezing of credit markets and a re-run of 2008. No wonder that the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, is in a mood to box Washington ears. "People around the world are confused. They are bemused. But they are not amused by what's happening," she said.
For Obama, this is all about Obamacare, to Democratic eyes the jewel of his otherwise rather disappointing presidency, and a policy he pushed through without concessions to the opposition. For most Republicans, it's about the need to control the administration's spending. And for the Tea Party rebels who have blocked Boehner's proposed compromises, it's about their country going to hell in an ermine-lined, diamond-encrusted handcart. The Tea Party movement is not driven by racism, but it certainly loathes the Democratic metropolitan elite Obama reigns over, who in turn regard them as uncouth rednecks.
Tea partiers come from a tradition of frugality, self-help and small government and have their origins in the later George W Bush years, which millions of members of his own party believe were characterised by reckless spending, with the final insult being his bailing out of Wall Street just before he left office.
To them, Obama is making everything worse and is bent on turning America into a European-style social democracy, which is foreign to its history and its principles.
The underlying problem, however, is greater than these players. It's that America, like Ireland, is a necrocracy: it's just not done to question the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Yet the constitution is long out of date. It was devised in 1787 for a small, reasonably homogeneous country, which soon became enormous. In 1803, a deal with France (the Louisiana Purchase) added 828,000 square miles. In 1845, the acquisition of Texas added territory the size of Western Europe. No wonder they had a civil war in the 1860s.
The Founding Fathers were a collection of gentlemen who believed in civilised debate, generous negotiation and sensible compromise. To that end, they devised the separation of executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state, with Congress getting the purse strings. Unlike parliamentary democracies, stalemates can't be resolved by calling an election.
With American debt-laden as never before and with the country ideologically split between those who want a big state and those who want limited government, the country is almost ungovernable. Republicans are all over the place, lacking leadership, coherence or strategy.
The president and his inner circle, who should be trying to bring the country together, are being aloof, contemptuous and aggressively partisan. If they get it together to put country before party and "resolve this budget shit shutdown", maybe they might put their minds to constitutional change.