A debt deal The Founders could love

(Published in The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2011)


The debt-ceiling crisis has prompted predictable media laments about how partisan and dysfunctional our political system has become. But if the process leading to the current deal was a “spectacle” and a “three-ring circus,” as Obama adviser David Plouffe put it, the show’s impresarios are none other than James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Our messy political system is working exactly the way our Founders intended it to.

To the extent House members were the most intransigent during the process—a matter of opinion, in any case—they were meant to be. The House of Representatives is the “popular branch,” as described in The Federalist Papers, and was intended to “have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.” Many people, especially those who elected tea party candidates last November, passionately believe that the federal government has gone off the rails. They think that Washington has been spending like a drunken sailor since President Obama took office, and that this profligacy must end.

By contrast, the Framers conceived the Senate as a body of graybeards (or, at the very least, as modestly mature individuals who have reached the age of 30). It was meant to represent the interests of the states and to serve as a check on “the impulse of sudden and violent passions,” or the danger of “factious leaders” offering “intemperate and pernicious resolutions” that might in time characterize the lower house. If the Senate has been less willing than the House to call an immediate halt to federal borrowing and to seek a more gradual return to fiscal responsibility, this too is exactly what it is supposed to do.

The result was a compromise, as it has nearly always been throughout our history. This will be a disappointment to many who voted for real and immediate fiscal restraint, but that too is to be expected. The Framers believed in gradual change. They prized stability and predictability. Most would have agreed with Talleyrand’s injunction—”above all, not too much zeal”—and themselves watched as Talleyrand learned this lesson the hard way. An early and enthusiastic participant in the French Revolution, France’s future foreign minister was forced to take refuge in the United States after his countrymen started cutting off heads.

Accordingly, the Framers rejected a parliamentary system of government, where power is concentrated in the legislature and very often in one house of the legislature. There truly are winners and losers in such political systems, and governmental policy can indeed be transformed immediately after a new government takes office.

By contrast, our Constitution diffuses power both vertically among the federal government and states and horizontally among the three branches of the federal government—and then again within Congress itself. Change, even good and necessary change, is always difficult. It must be based on consensus.

Yes, reaching consensus on any issue that matters is messy. Shouting and intransigence are commonplace in such battles and have been since the very beginning. Indeed, the Washington circus began well before the capital city was completed, and the Founding generation was second to none in its use of political invective. For example, Thomas Jefferson and his surrogates suggested President Washington had gone senile and claimed that John Adams was a closet monarchist. After he became president, Jefferson himself was excoriated because of an alleged sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.

Rarely in our system do the participants, whether in the House, Senate or White House, achieve all or even most of their goals in a single political battle. Sunday night, a debt-ceiling deal was reached that will raise the federal debt ceiling and permit continued borrowing to fund federal government operations through 2012 rather than just for another six months. The hard questions—taxes and spending cuts—have largely been postponed.

But the key point has been made. Few now suggest that we can continue on our current spending binge. That is the beginning of a consensus, and a good start towards genuine change. Postponing the difficult questions also means that the electorate can have its say in the 2012 elections, and represents significant political risks for all parties.

The Framers would be pleased at the “spectacle.”

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey, Washington D.C.-based attorneys, served in the Department of Justice during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved


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