Consider This a Warning: Is Our Republic in the Emergency Room?

Thomas Warns*

It is no secret that the current healthcare debate taking place in Congress may end up temporarily shutting down the government. As Republicans and Democrats battle over a spending bill and the debate surrounding the future funding of Obamacare intensifies, The New York Times set the stage for a possible government shutdown:

“Without a complete capitulation by House Republicans, large sections of the government would close, hundreds of thousands of workers would be furloughed without pay, and millions more would be asked to work for no pay.
Polls show that the public is already deeply unhappy with its leaders in Congress, and the prospect of the first government shutdown in 17 years would be the latest dispiriting development. With a temporary shutdown appearing inevitable without a last-ditch compromise, the battle on Sunday became as much about blaming the other side as searching for a solution.”
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Ignoring the merits of the Obamacare legislation itself, what does this legislative impasse reveal about how Americans perceive democracy in a Republic? And what should we see as the result of this debate?

Many Americans are frustrated that partisan gridlock seems to have prevented Congress from doing much of anything recently besides passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010. For many this budget debate seems to represent the worst of Congress’ partisan politics, but this sort of all-or-nothing showdown could be exactly what the doctor ordered for stopping future gridlock. If the government does shut down, one party is likely to come out a big winner while the other comes out a big loser.

Midterm elections are a year away, and this debate will significantly shape the outcome. With both parties trying their best to achieve their partisan goals while blaming the other party for a potential shutdown, it seems like the “winning” side could stand to take a larger share of seats in Congress. Democrats largely believe that the 2012 elections were an unconditional victory, however, the Republicans still control the House of Representatives – if Congress unites wholly under one party, it would be much easier for legislation to make it to the President’s desk.

Both parties claim that they are speaking for the majority of Americans; clearly at least one of them is wrong, but perhaps they both are. Only 57.5% of Americans eligible to vote actually did so in 2012. Since the election was close to a 50-50 split (roughly speaking) of those who voted, neither side can plausibly say that they represent a majority of the country’s citizens.

America’s political system is obsessed with the idea of majority rule, but the fact is that no such majority political consensus exists nationally. The Tea Party members behind the defund Obamacare movement constantly take flak for allegedly hijacking the nation’s political system by trying to wield influence that exceeds its base of support. But the Tea Party is merely just one minority group among many trying to exert its influence to the maximum extent possible.

Should we be concerned or surprised when a small but dedicated movement is able to score legislative victories at a greater pace than a larger but apathetic plurality? Certainly not. We expect and receive more input on legislation from the people who are most affected by it and who care about it the most. That is normal, just as it is normal for the EPA to receive more feedback from the automobile and trucking industry than from the general public about newly proposed improved emissions standards for cars and trucks.

John McCain recently said that he would not defund Obamacare because the American people “spoke” and Congressmen need to “respect the outcomes of elections because they reflect the will of the people.” But his view of democracy doesn’t make sense in a Republic. Nationally President Obama was re-elected running in support of Obamacare, but the House of Representatives has 232 Republicans and the Senate has 46. Should Ted Cruz vote in favor of Obamacare after being elected on a platform staunchly opposed to it because voters in states he doesn’t represent support it? Absolutely not.

So what does this all mean? It means that a government shutdown followed by a political “win” for one party is not necessarily a sign of dysfunction in Washington, but could actually demonstrate that our Republic is operating just fine and that Congress might start working more smoothly after the midterm elections.


*Thomas Warns is a J.D. Candidate at New York University School of Law, class of 2015, and is Staff Editor of the Journal of Law & Liberty. Mr. Warns is author of the weekly column "Consider This a Warning".