The Republican Party was founded in 1854 to combat the extension of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first Republican president in 1860. The party was comprised of on northern whites, businessmen, factory workers and African Americans. Until FDR’s New Deal brought jobs during the Great Depression and Eleanor Roosevelt championed civil rights, most blacks supported the Republican Party. From its inception, the Republican Party was pro- business and anti-government regulation but it remained moderate on social issues even during the Reagan “revolution;” – well at least it was a “kinder and gentler” and more reasonable party. My have things changed!
What has become of the Grand Old Party? Abe Lincoln is surely turning over and over in his grave. Back in Abe’s day saving the union was a paramount concern. The Civil War was arguably more about the preservation of the Union than the emancipation of slaves. In contrast, today the Republican Party and its renegade faction (aka the Tea Party) care less about the union than it does its anti-President Obama agenda. In the words of Charles Blow, the “tea party representatives have been sent to Washington with a singular mission: obstruct Obama.” (Charles M. Blow, “Kamikaze Congress” New York Times 9/20/13’) Another commentator noted that during town Republican town meeting “President Bashar al- Assad of Syria received more kind words [ than President Obama]” (Campbell Robertson “ Alabama Primary Puts a Wide Spectrum of Republican Views on Display” New York Times 9/21/13)
This past week, the Republican controlled House decided that it would rather shut down the government and risk debt default than fund the Affordable Healthcare Act (popularly known as Obama care). Rather than availing itself of the constitutional process to amend or repeal the healthcare bill the Tea Party faction chose to attach a measure to defund Obamacare to a continuing spending bill to fund the government operations. In other words, the House would finance continued government operations only if Obamacare was defunded.
Ironically, for a good portion of the 20th century, administrations tried without success to implement a universal healthcare measure. No one disputes the need for such legislation; not even the most ardent critics of the current legislation. To be sure the present measure is less than perfect but even a flawed measure represents a significant policy achievement. One suspects that, as does Charles Blow, “the Tea Party faction is more afraid that Obamacare will succeed and become a clear legacy victory for President Obama than that it will fail.”
The Tea party has been able to wield an inordinate amount of power. Traditionally, the Speaker of the House provided leadership for the majority and pushed its legislative agenda. The Speaker kept the party in line. John Boehner, the current Speaker, however seems to be led by the rank and file House Republicans -most of whom are newcomers from Tea Party districts. Speaker Boehner’s leadership is challenged at every turn. In the current battle, it was Representative Tom Graves, Republican of Georgia, who gathered enough supporters to force his party’s leadership to tie spending bill for government operations to defunding of Obamacare. Graves is just one of several Tea Party Representatives who owes their House seat to gerrymandering – the manipulation of district boundaries to establish political advantage.
The previous shutdown in 1995-96 occurred when President Bill Clinton and GOP congressional leaders could not agree on the terms of a spending bill .At least during that shutdown the GOP could argue that it had a mandate to challenge a lame duck president because of sweeping victories in midterm elections. In this instance no such mandate exists. President Obama is not a lame duck president: he was elected by a popular vote majority and received 126 more electoral votes than his opponent, Mitt Romney.
The shutdown lasted 21 days and all but the most essential government services were suspended; 800,000 federal workers were sent home. If another shut down occurs, among other things, again most federal workers would be put on unpaid furloughs and soldiers would not be paid. Yet the most serious consequence could be the inability to meet the debt obligations maturing in mid-October. A debt default could potentially disrupt global markets and re-stall the economy.
In the wake of the recent House posture, one comes to appreciate the U.S. Constitution author’s bicameral legislative design. Despite the declarations in the founding documents proclaiming a “government of, for and by the people”, the framers distrusted the people. They felt the need to employ a safety valve to check the will of the people and “to restrain if possible, the fury of democracy.” Or as stated by James Madison, “The use of the Senate is to consist in proceeding with coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom than the popular branch.”
It is anticipated that the Senate will indeed proceed with coolness and considerably more wisdom than the House and not attempt to repeal Obama care. Ranking Republican Senators have variously characterized the House position as the “dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of (Senator Richard Burr) and, “absurd.” (Senator John McCain).
Generally, however, it seems that the GOP has not heeded Governor Bobby Jindal’s admonition to stop being the “stupid party. “Instead it appears bent on taking stupid to such levels that Paul Krugman, the famed Princeton economist and New York Times columnist has labeled it the “crazy party.” (Paul Krugman, “the Crazy Party” New York Times 9/19/2013)
Abe would hardly recognize his Grand Old Party.
Written by W. Ray Kwame Williams, who is an alumni of Eastside High School and a lecturer at Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick.