Basic civics is essential to resolving the gridlock

Only by returning to a now-vintage form of political discourse--civics or more specifically in this case, the role different branches of government play and the obligations they bear--will Washington be able to face down the crisis it's currently precipitating.

So far, language about the shutdown has been exclusively, even rabidly partisan, especially when emanating from the White House. We've heard about the misdeeds of the "Republican-led House" and that a major structural crisis is essentially a disagreement among a few "extremist" Republican congressman. But painting the issue in these terms ignores a fundamental governing reality: that one branch of government is inherently set in opposition to another. It is, in other words, an instance of check and balance.

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Rather than acknowledging--and engaging--this underlying reality of American governance, President Obama has chosen to get his way by intentionally polarizing the debate with a relentless lobby of partisan and ad hominem attacks. Aggressive vitriol that casts the Republican Congress as "hostage takers," "kidnappers," and "wackos" has enabled the president to simply opt out of the political process of negotiation. Instead he attempts to poison debate, shaping the issue from a policy disagreement into a personality conflict issuing a steady stream of harsh sound-bites that deflects his presidential responsibility in finding constructive leadership.

But Obama is free to make his own leadership choices. What's most distressing is that the Republicans have missed a major opportunity with the fomenting of the current crisis. Rather than return the vollies of recrimination, Republicans should be stepping in with a cool-headed message about civics.

After all, as the majority of the House, they are the elected representatives of the American people. It's not the GOP "ransoming" the country or holding "hostage" the White House, but the American people--who put a majority of Republicans in power for a reason--who support the underlying issues driving the GOP's budgetary defiance.

But more than this, the Republican leadership has failed to remind the public that it's the president's duty to sit down with them because, whether it's the same party or different parties in control of each of the three branches, negotiation is what they, as elected officials, are enjoined to do no matter what the cause.

It's this mandate to check the executive's natural search for more power with Congress' inherent ability to hedge that power; to balance federal needs against state and individual liberties; and to reconcile the differing values and desires embodied by the parties that is the main task of American government.

In bringing the argument back to where it belongs, Republicans would be able to leave the American emperor, who is wrapped in rhetorical garb, standing disturbingly shirtless. To many, Obama's flourishes are expressions of a deep-seated arrogance, while to others they represent a wily ability to capture the narrative. But whatever the cause, the president has been able to distort the shutdown--dragging both himself and the GOP through the mud--because Republicans have let him.

But the effects of Obama's mistake haven't been limited to his opposition. Just this week, DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton attended a meeting at the White House with House Democrats where she implored President Obama to support a House-passed bill that would allow DC access to crucial funds. After being pilloried by Democratic colleagues for her frankness, Norton's response was telling: "The Democratic votes [against the DC funding bill] are being driven by the president's veto," said Norton. "I believe I had to go to the source of the problem and that's the president."

There is a good reason that the House of Representatives is called "the people's House": The power to initiate law, the power of the purse, the power to subpoena, the power to impeach and the power to declare war are just a few of the weighty prerogatives entrusted to the House of Representatives by the Constitution. And yet the President doesn't think, or act, as if he should take this branch of government as anything more than a temporary stomping-grounds for his political enemies.

Making the case to a wary American people begins with explaining the basic civics to this crisis. Our Congress, needs to make clear that by agreeing to a president that refuses to engage, but only demand, is in fact dishonoring the powers and prestige of the House of Representatives. By replacing blame with civics, and making a case to the American people that the elected leaders of the House of Representatives are checking the executive out of a duty to do so, the GOP can reassert it's most valuable views on governance at a time when we couldn't possibly need anything more. 

Harkham is co-founder of the Jewish National Initiative and director of the Whiskey Debate Society.