09/30/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013


I find it very difficult to think, let alone write, about the current budget impasse in Congress. Anger is never a good muse. Good writing should be thoughtful and, hopefully, illuminating, not a rant or a petulant screed, but silence in this instance is not an option.

I understand that members of Congress might have concerns about the Affordable Healthcare Act. Reasonable minds can differ and generally do when it comes to something as complicated, conflicted, and contentious as health care. And while I think those differences ought to be worked out through the normal legislative process, I can even understand -- though to a much lesser degree -- how our elected representatives might be tempted to use the leverage of the budget process and the debt limit to extract some concessions on the implementation of the new health law. But enough is enough.

I have worked in Washington for nearly four decades, including 13 years as an aide to congressional leaders. I am one of the few people in this town who have worked on both sides of the aisle, including three years for the House Republican Conference. I have fought in the trenches on issues as contentious as gun control and campaign finance reform, but I have never seen anything quite like this. This is visceral. And, quite frankly, it frightens me.

As I listen to the public debate and talk privately to members of Congress, it is clear to me that this is not about health care. It's not even about government spending. It's about power, about who has it and who does not. And it's not just a power struggle between two political parties or between Congress and the president.

Nowhere was that more clear to me than on Saturday night when the House slipped a "conscience clause" into the government funding bill that would give every employer the power to deny contraceptive coverage -- and other health care coverage -- to their employees on the basis of the employer's moral or religious objections. And there you have it: The House wants to empower the religiously-minded employers, while disempowering their employees. With respect to contraception, it's the war on women fought anew.

What the House did under the guise of "conscience" was itself unconscionable. When it comes to matters of access to contraceptives we should be empowering women, not their employers and not the religious beliefs of their employers. By injecting the issue of contraception into the government funding bill, the House leaders were demonstrating, as they have in other aspects of this budget fight, that they have no interest in power sharing. They want to call the shots on everything, including contraception.

Successful democracies, however, are all about power sharing, about making reasonable accommodations with the other side, not about making nonnegotiable demands and holding the government and the economy hostage.

I am not opposed to power struggles per se. There are times when the injustice is too great or the moral stakes are so high, that intransigence is required. But when power struggles are fought over relatively trivial causes, like the mechanics of a health care law or an employer's religious objection to contraception, they are divisive and debilitating, and they do harm to the country and the values that we all share.

I do not know how the current budget impasse will ultimately be resolved, but I suspect that our nation, our democracy, and our economy will not be the better for it.

It's unconscionable.