henry clay

If Kentucky to-morrow unfurls the banner of resistance unjustly, I never will fight under that banner. I owe a permanent allegiance to the whole Union – a subordinate one to my own State. When my State is right – when it has a cause for resistance, when tyranny, and wrong, and oppression insufferable arise – I will then share her fortunes; but if she summons me to the battle-field or to support her in any cause which is unjust against the Union, never, never will I engage with her in such a cause. Should [any state] hoist the flag of disunion and rebellion, gallant men and devoted patriots in every other state would [respond]. Thousands, tens of thousands, of Kentuckians would flock to the standard of their country to dissipate and repress their rebellion. These are my sentiments. Make the most of them.” – Henry Clay, July 22, 1850

If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas.” – John Boehner, February 26, 2015

The ostensible purpose of this part of this blog is to advocate for populism, defined as “power to the people,” or anything that shifts some degree of control from the 1% governing class to the governed. Sometimes I also provide anecdotes from my own non-1% life, partly because I don’t want to beat a policy-oriented drum with every weekly entry. Knowing that the 114th Congress met for the first time in January, I thought I’d give them a little slack, a bit of time to find their feet and establish their character. Okay. Grace period over. It’s late March and the new Republican-led Congress is wrapping up what they call their first “session.” How have they done?

Horrible. Terrible. Awful. Deplorable. Atrocious. Dreadful. Ghastly. Abhorrent. I’m running out of synonyms here.

Yesterday, longtime legislative-chamber analyst Gail Collins started her column with “The United States Senate is worse than ever.” There’s the problems Republicans are having drafting their first budget in ten years, the problems funding Homeland Security for more than a week, and now, the problem passing a motion against human trafficking. Apparently the Republicans, once known for complaining about the page count of the Affordable Care Act, drafted a 112-page anti-trafficking bill that hid a tiny clause forbidding the use of money to provide trafficking victims with access to abortions. As Collins put it, “It would be as if the Democrats had quietly added a stipulation requiring all trafficking victims be barred from carrying a concealed weapon.” What’s worse, the Democrats in the committee charged with reviewing the bill failed to see this clause until it left their committee. If Republicans can be faulted for excessive shady shenanigans, Democrats can likewise be faulted for excessive shoulder-shrugging.

Here’s the house of horrors. Uh, both houses. Don’t worry, it won’t take long to read. In fact, “major legislation enacted” takes all of one line. (Technically you can link from there to all of legislation enacted – three more lines there. One wonders if the “pi day” legislation from a few years back could pass today.)

Other than that, Congress has played patsy to a leader of a country with one-tenth the population of Bangladesh, and drafted a letter to Iran that was rife with condescension (“you may not understand our Constitution”) and hypocrisy (Republicans have lambasted Democrats for similar behavior).

If this level of malfeasance made up some kind of one-year fluke, like the New England Patriots missing the playoffs one year, that would be one thing. But they’re further evidence of severe, systemic dysfunction, as corrosive as it is avoidable. Americans tend to look at the Republican-Democratic grudge match as some kind of stain in their house that can’t really be cleaned and doesn’t really matter. But it CAN be cleaned, and it DOES matter.

In an excellent New Yorker article unsympathetically reviewing the book du jour about income inequality, Robert Putnam’s “Our Kids,” Jill Lepore writes, “The American political imagination has become as narrow as the gap between rich and poor is wide.” Lepore’s got numbers to back that up. She quotes a detailed study by Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz, who sought to learn why the United States’ income inequality is so much worse than that of 22 other advanced democracies. They counted the amount of “veto players” in the other countries – bodies/units who can block a policy decision. Most democracies have unicameral legislatures and only one veto player; a few have two or three; only the U.S. has four. Stepan and Linz also studied legislative seats compared to population apportionment, and found that of the 23 countries, the U.S.A. has the most malapportioned, least accountable legislature. Tallying up all the countries, the study found that the less representative the legislature, the greater the gap between rich and poor.

If Congress were a corporation, customers and stockholders would have put it out of business. If Congress were an animal, someone would have put it out of its misery. But of course, we’re not talking about Congress; we’re talking about the aforementioned modern Republican-Democratic grudge match. Bill Simmons had a great recent column about how the Washington Redskins are probably the most disappointing sports franchise – despite that title typically claimed by the L.A. Clippers or various Cleveland teams – because the Redskins had an amazing, legendary team as recently as the early 90s. As Simmons put it, Cleveland teams never got to fly first-class; the Washington Native American Insults had years of first-class-itude only to be squinched into the middle of coach. As went the Potomac Pigskins in this century, so went their city, right up to the failings of the young black savior who was supposed to ride into town and change everything.

The present situation, then, is particularly disheartening because of our glorious past. Future history textbooks will be rife with unflattering comparisons. Congress in the mid-19th-century wasn’t only successful because of great orators saying important things, like the above-quoted Henry Clay; Congress packed its upper galleries with enthusiastic, random members of the public because it was the world’s exciting experiment with a government that was becoming more representative with each passing year. When history books look back on our post-Cold War Congress, they will describe only sclerosis, entropy, and fierce partisanship on behalf of petty territory defense.

Parties weren’t quite so set in stone when Clay gave that speech. Clay couldn’t count on the automatic support of half the electorate no matter what he said, as Charles Schumer and Marco Rubio can right now. There is no way out of this two-team box that doesn’t involve blowing a hole through the box. We need a third party. We need a fourth party. We’re taking the wrong lesson from the Israeli elections; we should be less concerned about Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing yahoo-ism (it’s in his last name, after all) and more about the nuances of coalition building required of Netanyahu now that he’s won. Nothing in our Constitution precludes our legislature from having as many parties as we see competing for seats in Israel’s Knesset (about ten of them). We have to stop treating this two-party crisis of governance as a regrettable stain. This sort of stain shows a leak that’s bringing down the whole structure.