Picture a lone Republican running through the darkened hallways of power, paraphrasing Soylent Green's climactic line as he shouts the news to his peers:
"It's people! The Federal government is people!"
That insight seemed to strike Hill Republicans last week, if only briefly: Our government is made up of people helping other people. But don't count on seeing a new era of conciliation or a new embrace of democratic processes. Instead Republicans seemed to renew their commitment to the principle that only one branch of government -- their branch -- should control it.
Call it the Imperial Congress, and this week it tried to invent a new form of governance.
Of the People, By the People ...
This could be a learning moment for any Republican willing to change. For years they've railed against a dark and faceless abstraction they call "Government." Now that they've shut down the government - not the faceless monster of their fantasies, but the real-life Constitutional version -- they've been forced to change their tune a little.
Consider Rep. Randy Neugebauer's boorish rant to a Park Ranger, whom he lacerated because the shutdown had closed a park to most visitors. Neugebauer didn't tell the ranger or the crowd of onlookers that we didn't need parks, or that we could do without a government to run them. Instead he tried to place the blame for their closure on a single Federal employee.
Suddenly the enemy was government shutdowns, not government. That's progress -- in a way.
But think of it: A Congressman who voted to shut down the government, while continuing to receive $172,000 per year, dressed down a park ranger who had shown up for work not knowing when -- or if -- she would be paid at all. (The average Park Ranger earns $44,900 per year.)
Neugebauer, and others like him, have been indoctrinated with a far-right ideology which says that Federal employees should "get off our backs." But instead of facing a Randian parasite, Neugebauer was confronted with a human being trying to do a popular job under difficult circumstances. Deep down inside, his rage might have been thinly concealed shame.
It certainly should have been.
This embarrassing moment, and others like it, might have contributed to the GOP's decision late last week to agree that all furloughed workers will eventually receive back pay. (They may have also discovered that Federal employees, like other citizens, vote.)
... and For the People
Neugebauer told the Park Ranger she should be "ashamed" for turning a line of people away from a national park site, even though Neugebauer's party has been orchestrating the shutdown for months (as reported in detail in today's New York Times).
The Congressman confronted another reality that day: The government exists for people just like the ones standing in line with him. And since the people designed that government through their democratic institutions, it shouldn't be surprising that they generally like the things it does. Even conservatives who mouth anti-government rhetoric usually like going to parks and museums, or receiving Social Security checks.
The disconnect between reality and their abstract aversion toward government is what first led to the infamous conservative cry: "Government, Hands Off My Medicare." Now they, and other Americans, are being reminded what government really is:
It's parks, historic sites, and campgrounds, with plenty of park rangers on hand to keep them safe, maintain the property, and show them around;
It's medical research, sick kids getting experimental treatments, and investigators working to prevent the next flu pandemic;
It's inspectors working to make sure you don't get food poisoning from your next meal, or lose a limb to unsafe machinery on the job;
It's the men and women of the armed forces, patrolling land, sea, and air to maintain the nation's defenses.
Government is all those things, and many more. And with every day that the shutdown continues, people keep being reminded what government does for them.
Enter the Imperial Congress
One might expect insights like these to result in a few personal and political transformations. Ideally they'd lead to an ending worthy of a Frank Capra movie, as an exhausted yet newly-idealistic Jimmy Stewart character stands up beneath the Capitol Dome and confesses: Why, gosh, we were wrong! Folks need government, because folks are government!
But these aren't normal times - and John Boehner's no Jimmy Stewart. Instead of seeing the light, the Congressional majority has apparently decided to assume an ever-greater imperial role. Their would-be Imperium sought to consolidate power by attaching policy dictates to the continuing resolution (or "CR") that keeps the government open. And now they've invented "mini-CRs," a new kind of selective funding authorization designed to deliver their imperial edicts to the other, newly subordinate branches of government.
Congress appears to be basing these new authorizations on political considerations alone. It issued a "mini-CR" to re-open the National Institutes of Health, for example, apparently for the sole purpose of then claiming that Democrats were trying to deny care to cancer patients. (Republicans have been silent on all the other life-threatening cuts this tactic would prolong, from food programs to public safety.)
Another "mini-CR" ensured that military personnel and their families would have uninterrupted access to religious services. However, as Rep. Bill Enyart noted, "Day care centers on military bases are closed. Commissaries on military bases are closed. Military support workers are furloughed."
Eventually a "mini-CR" was passed which guarantees back pay to furloughed Federal workers - including the park ranger harangued by Randy Neugebauer. That bill's being considered favorably by Sen. Reid and the Senate Democrats, according to reports, while the others are not. Democrats are understandably reluctant to institutionalize the Imperial Congress by submitting to its edicts, or to prolong hundreds of dangerous shutdowns by terminating a politically-motivated few solely based on GOP whims.
Fall of Empire
After deliberately refusing to negotiate on a number of occasions (part of the plan they hatched last January), Boehner's now claiming that the President's "refusal to negotiate" is "putting our nation at risk." He's threatening to allow the government to default on its debts, a move which could have severe economic repercussions.
To be fair, Boehner may not have much of a choice. For too long his party's extremists have been over-indulged by the media, their opponents, and their party's leadership. Now they can't be satisfied by anything short of full surrender on basic principles of governance.
"Heaven is high and the emperor is far away ..."
An ancient Chinese poem spoke of a decaying and corrupt imperial state whose people's leaders are detached from their day-to-day needs. Today that detachment is found in a party whose representatives pay themselves six-figure salaries while denying government services to millions of Americans.
The electorate overwhelmingly rejected the Republicans' conservative mandate last year. They even gave Democrats 1.4 million more votes for Congress than Republicans. Who's representing the people in the Republican Caucus? Leaders with names like Boehner, Cantor, and Ryan keep trying to force through the same solutions which the people rejected last year. And even they're not fully in control. They're forced to answer to every single member of their chaotic caucus - all 233 of them.
" ... the people are few yet officials abound."
None of these 233 Representatives were elected to run the Executive Branch, or to choose which laws are to be implemented and which are to be rejected. And yet, that's what they're trying to do.
Democrats have already made too many concessions. They're right to stand up to the Imperial Congress. But that won't be enough. It's time for the people to take their government back from the extremists, before their empire collapses and takes us all down with it.