09/20/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Nov 20, 2013

How American Legislatures Work: House Republicans Ain't Crazy

It is currently fashionable to describe House Republicans as crazy, as they push us to a government shutdown or debt default. Oh that it were so.

There is a crazy streak in the Tea Party. The "death panel", "birther", "nullify", "legitimate rape" types are actually crazy, in the common usage of the word. But they are one part of a much larger movement that is anything but crazy. What is called the Tea Party wing of today's Republican Party is idea-based and to dismiss it as a group of weirdos is a huge political and moral error.

They believe that government is the enemy of prosperity and personal freedom. If you start with that premise, shutting down the government, at any cost, is a patriotic duty. For the record, that's not a world view I share, but it ought to be called what it is; an idea, not a syndrome.

It's also true that behind this big idea lurk a series of self-interested malefactors, call them the Club For Growth or the Koch brothers or Fox News. These folks have an economic agenda that seeks lower taxes especially on the wealthy, and less government oversight of corporations. We certainly ought to pay attention to these "men behind the screen", who Oz-like have funded the Tea Party efflorescence for their own purposes. But that doesn't explain or get us out of the looming mess.

What makes all this new and frightening is how it stands on its head our expectations of how a democracy functions, especially our legislatures. We've always tolerated extreme and unusual ideas in our legislatures, if only because they often become mainstream policy. After all it was Republicans like NY's Charlie Goodell and Oregon's Bob Packwood who joined George McGovern in figuring out that the way out of Vietnam was for Congress to "defund" the war.

But until the Tea Party there has been a consensus that, win or lose a particular fight, legislators were committed to the functionality of government. Call it compromise if you wish, but government was the source of good things, an expression of our social and moral interdependence. We might care about abortion rights, or civil rights, or healthcare, but we were not going to shut down the government to force things our way.

I spent over 25 years in the New York Legislature on both sides of these controversies. It was enjoyable, and mostly effective, and certainly important. We differed on policy, but we shared an idea about how democracies work. The willingness to compromise and fight again was at the core of our daily work, because Republicans and Democrats alike had joined the government to make it function. Not to shut it down. That idea has been replaced by a new idea: The Tea Party's desire to remake if not destroy the federal government.

There really is no point in arguing with the Tea Party-ers, and less in calling them names. The actual deciders are elsewhere, those remaining Republicans who do not share the Tea Party idea that government is the ultimate and sole enemy. They exist all right. And they will have to choose once we reach the brink. But they're scared and friendless.

The forces that can empower them are the Oz-like secret malefactors mentioned above. It's up to the Karl Rove's, the Roger Ailes', and the Koch brothers to figure out how to resurrect a balance of power in the Republican Party. It's a supreme test of whether American legislatures can survive the huge influx of money and influence that turned the Tea Party from a fringe movement into our most important political player. The Founder's shrewd system of checks and balances that has worked all these years is teetering. And the responsibility for a solution is in the hands of the people who created this mess.

So, go get 'em, Karl and Roger and Dave and Charlie. Our fate is in your hands. Default and government shutdown are now way beyond a political problem for the Republican Party. You have no influence over the movement you funded, but there are dozens of other Republican Congressmen who still listen to you. The rest of us best keep quiet, stop minimizing the Tea Party as crazy, and hope that the corporate right can save the Nation.