Worry about our national credit, the economic consequence of default and the economy, to be sure.
But the long-term danger of Washington shenanigans is an erosion in the ability of our legislative branch to do what it's supposed to do. We are a beacon of liberty around the world not because of our executive branch, but because our legislative bodies independently limit the power of the president and act on their own practical ideas. If we lose that, we lose all.
The Tea Party capture of the House of Representatives is the triumph of a danger that the Founders warned about; The ability of a "faction" to seize control of the Congress and stop the government in its tracks. James Madison, in Federalist 51, uncannily described what the Tea Party has done to House Republicans and Speaker John Boehner: "In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign." Anarchy reigns in the House of Representatives.
The anarchists are, perversely, well organized and chock full of ideas. The Tea Party seems to be about policies and ideology. The core of its beliefs involve liberty, austerity and reversing the growing dependency on government program, and other ideas, all of which deserve thoughtful debate. What it has turned into is a faction committed to stopping the Congress from functioning unless those ideas are adopted by everyone. The result is anarchy, as Madison predicted.
Madison also talked about preventing anarchy. The Constitution had the tools necessary to prevent legislative anarchy. "If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote."
Aha. We cure the danger of factional anarchy by resort to the "republican principle" a vote. Quite right.
The flaw in Madison's logic was the assumption that a vote would occur. It turns out that the decision to call an actual vote in the House of representatives is in hands of one man, Speaker John Boehner. If he, at any time, brings to a vote any proposal, Tea Party, Obama, Reid-McConnell or other, than the "republican" principle would cure the drift toward anarchy. If he doesn't, than we have, well, what we now have.
The defense offered by Boehner apologists are weak at best. If he's chased out of the Speakership, his successor would be worse. Or, he has a duty to the Members who elected him, all Republicans. Or, he'll do the right thing at the last minute. Not good enough. John Boehner seems to be a nice enough man. But he should have embraced Madison's advice from the get-go and publicly committed to a vote, even if he delayed it to the last minute. He could have covered himself in a constitutional mantle, and defended himself in the name of democracy and the common good. What ever anger erupted from the extreme right would have been more easily understood as an attack on American democracy and protected the rest of the Republican Members. He did none of that and weakened our democracy as a result.
There's something wonderful about reading Madison's insightful and prescient words, now over 200 years old. That has been canceled out by a vacillating and self-interested leader unable to stand up for the genius of the American system, a working, effective legislative presence. And God help us if he fails to learn the lesson, and we go through the same nonsense in a few months. Any bets?