THE BLOG

House Republicans and the Betrayal of Democracy

10/01/2013 11:37 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2013
  • Geoffrey R. Stone Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago

A threat is an expression of intention to inflict harm on others unless the target of the threat agrees to do what the person making the threat demands. A threat uses coercion rather than persuasion to effect change. As a general rule, democratic governments do not negotiate with those who threaten their people with harm. The reason is simple: Democracies should not make public policy in response to threats, and those who threaten should not be rewarded for threatening harm to the nation.

What makes the House Republicans' decision to shut down the federal government an immoral and unconscionable "threat" rather than an ordinary political disagreement? The answer is simple. House Republicans who do not have the votes to repeal Obamacare through the processes of democracy threatened to close the federal government, to throw hundreds of thousands of innocent government employees out of work, and to damage the nation's economy unless the Senate and the President acceded to their demands. By threatening to wreak havoc with the national interest and inflicting serious harm on hard-working, loyal public employees, they are attempting to coerce rather than to persuade the government into doing what they want. The House Republicans, in short, are holding the nation itself hostage to their demands. This is not democratic governance. This is extortion, plain and simple. In any other circumstance, this would be criminal conduct.

Of course, as the House Republicans glibly say on the talk shows, the Senate and the President can "solve" the problem any time they want by giving in to those who are inflicting ongoing harm to the nation. But if they do so, they will inevitably invite similarly destructive behavior in the future. When dealing with a blackmailer, extortionist, or kidnapper, it is never a wise response to give in to the demands if the blackmailer, extortionist or kidnapper is a repeat player.

Of course, the House Republicans have every right to try to get their preferred policies enacted into law through the democratic process. They have tried to do this politically, electorally and judicially. They have failed at every turn. The have lost every time they have tried to repeal Obamacare through the legislative process. They have lost in the Supreme Court when they challenged the constitutionality of the law. They have failed politically with the electorate when they were soundly defeated in the 2012 election. Indeed, the only reason House Republicans can play this cruel and criminal game at all is because they gerrymandered congressional districts to enable them to control the House even though they were defeated by the Democrats in the national popular vote for Congress. Nonetheless, they are free to keep trying to achieve their goals in every legal manner. But what they cannot morally do is to attempt to get their preferred policies enacted into law by threatening to inflict harm on the nation and its public servants.

The behavior of the House Republicans is nothing short of reprehensible. They are not only harming innocent government employees and damaging the nation, but they are also dishonoring the very spirit of their oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Their behavior is nothing less than a perverse and unconscionable betrayal of our democracy.

YOU MAY LIKE