A forthright plea to opposing party wings in Congress
© Greg Nash

Consider this column my heartfelt outreach to those on the extreme wings of the political spectrum in Congress who often engage in bizarre conduct to attract attention to their cause. In brief, my plea is: Consider the big picture institution you are a part of and your obligations to it and the people it represents.

My main concern is that more and more members are coming to Congress without a fundamental understanding of, respect for, or commitment to the institution to which they have just been elected. Instead, they have been captured and driven by the electoral imperative of destroying the opposition party to advance their own prospects for either retaining or regaining majority control of their respective chambers.

Yes, politics is all about the struggle for power and controlling the levers of governance. But this has been traditionally understood to mean abiding by the norms of constitutional governance: civility, respect, trust and compromise. What happens when members either blithely or intentionally violate those norms and ignore their sworn oath “to support and defend the Constitution…against all enemies foreign and domestic…without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion?”

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What exactly is it that members have committed themselves to by taking that oath?  As members of the first branch of government, their primary job is to exercise “all legislative powers” on behalf of the government and the people. Those powers include the power to lay and collect taxes, to pay the debts, and to “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”

That is not to say members are enjoined to support all legislation presented to them that purports to advance those goals. But it does mean they are expected at least to seriously review various legislative proposals and alternatives in order to render decisions reflective of their constituents’ views and their own considered judgment. As former Speaker Thomas B. Reed (R-Maine) once put it, “The object of a parliamentary body is action and not the stoppage of action.”

What is preventing members from carrying-out these simple responsibilities in a straightforward and determined manner? Quite often it is the opposition’s tactics either to block, divert or delay such action. Yes, these can be legitimate tactics when carried out consistent with congressional rules of proceeding. Such tactics are often employed to force a legislative body to take its time in making a final determination in a deliberative manner.

But is there a point of diminishing returns in obstructing Congress’s lawmaking powers under the Constitution? The answer to that question is ultimately decided at the next election, and not in preventing the body from enacting laws to address pressing national problems. The power of the people is what accounts for frequent turnovers in control of one or both houses of Congress. Sometimes such flips in party control are a result of Congress taking bad or unpopular actions (or both); and, at other times it is due to congressional dysfunction caused by partisan gridlock and paralysis.

The tactics of anti-governance minorities is nothing new. Such breaks in a progressive stream of legislative actions is often a national signal to slow down, reconsider and proceed with caution and moderation. It is the warp and woof of our democracy.

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But, when the anti-governance forces threaten not just to slow-down but to dismantle the essential gears of governing, there should be cause for alarm. Do the forces have a viable alternative course of action or are they simply out to stop the reigning power structure from functioning, whatever the cost?

The key to answering that question is in how much continuing respect such opposing forces show for our underlying constitutional process of lawmaking in the national interest versus how much their actions simply reflect a nihilistic iconoclasm that threatens to bring down our fragile government structure. There is no fallback Constitution, as much as some would prefer to do away with its separation of powers and checks and balances.

I am sure most who are opposing the current power structure and its agenda do not see themselves as wanting to destroy our system of governing. But, by their disrespect for it, they shall be known. Members can be committed institutionalists and still be strong partisans. More positive signals and alternatives are needed for them to prove both to themselves and the American people that they are capable of acting responsibly as the loyal opposition until it is their turn to take the reins of power.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.