America’s Crisis Of Governance

Taking a page or two from Juan Linz (PDF) and Bruce Ackerman (PDF) my latest TAP Online column develops the idea that the debt ceiling standoff is just one part of a broader gathering crisis of governance of the sort that have traditionally plagued Madisonian political systems outside the United States:

This is probably the best way to understand the Obama administration’s otherwise odd theory that the ongoing war in Libya doesn’t constitute “hostilities.” It’s also the best explanation of the amazing surge of interest in the previously obscure argument that Section 4 of the 14th Amendment makes the statutory debt ceiling unconstitutional. Ultimately, if House Republicans prefer default to reaching a compromise with the Obama administration, the country as a whole will find that it prefers a novel constitutional theory — one that lets the president take the reigns when Congress gets out of hand — to defaulting on the national debt.

This would be a good deal better than a coup. But it certainly looks like a step down the road toward lawlessness and breakdown. What’s more, though many liberals have criticized Obama’s assertions of executive authority in certain specific contexts, the preponderance of left-wing criticism of the president has been about his failure to act as a sufficiently zealous partisan and fully wield the powers of office. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and other immigration-reform advocates urged Obama to unilaterally halt deportations of students who would be legalized by the DREAM Act if it passed. Environmentalists urge Obama to aggressively deploy the Environmental Protection Agency to halt carbon-dioxide emissions. Gay-rights advocates laud the decision to stop fighting for the Defense of Marriage Act in court. This all makes sense, just as it makes sense for people to be urging serious consideration of the constitutional objections to the debt ceiling. But add it all together, and you’ve got the somewhat frightening spectacle of a president consistently and forcefully doing end arounds to evade Congress. When the political system stops working, that becomes the only path available to activists. But at some point, the underlying crisis in governance itself deserves to become the center of attention.

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