Debt Ceiling Raised: Tea Party Win May Be Our Political System’s Loss

Stephen L. Carter explains what the outcome of the debt debate tells us about the country’s future.

The system half worked. That seems the most practical conclusion to take from the just-concluded and unnecessarily extended brouhaha about raising the federal government’s debt ceiling. The system half worked; and the question is whether the half that failed is broken beyond repair.

Both movement progressives and various Washington and media establishment types are furious that the Tea Party successfully redefined the debate and then achieved a large chunk of what it wanted in the subsequent budget negotiations. One might respond that this is that is why they are called negotiations—nobody gets everything—and that the Tea Party had to surrender key parts of its agenda (for instance, “cut, cap, and balance”) just as progressives did. But there is a larger point to be made.

The Tea Party is a phenomenon of the moment, the result of a swirling and underestimated public concern and anguish. As a sudden and passionate movement, the Tea Party did what it is supposed to do under the constitutional design: it took over the House of Representatives, the branch closest to the people, and has proceeded to try implementing its agenda.

The wisdom of the Founders displayed itself most elegantly in the system of balanced and separated powers. The House cannot pass bills without the consent of the Senate, and unless there are strong majorities in both chambers, the bills cannot become law without the consent of the president. This may seem like hornbook eighth-grade civics, but it bears repeating. The Tea Party has influence only in the House. If the legislation there produced is beyond the pale, then, according to the vision of the Founders, it should die in the Senate.

The Senate was made smaller, and its tenure longer, in large measure to enable it to check the occasional surges of public opinion that would inevitably sweep the more representative House. According to Federalist 62, the Senate was designed to resist “the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions.” Without the calming influence of the longer-serving senators, wrote the author (either Hamilton or Madison), there would be no way for the Congress as a whole to “escape a variety of important errors in the exercise of their legislative trust.”

In Federalist 63, the author returns to the theme, noting how the passions of the moment might lead the House to adopt measures that the members themselves, at a more sober moment, would “be the most ready to lament and condemn.” He writes: “In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens”—meaning, again, the Senate.

Is the debt-ceiling deal, with its forced reduction of the nation’s long-term spending, one of the passions against which the system should be guarding? Many commentators seem to think so. I would hesitate to express a view, except to point out that if, indeed, a storm of ill-conceived popular opinion seized the House, it was the task of the Senate to calm the waters. Why didn’t this happen?

One possibility is that the Tea Party be partly right. Behind all the slogans and the shouting, they may be onto something. Government may indeed be too big and intrusive. Certainly the long-term public debt would seem well-nigh unsustainable. And although nearly every expert understands that taxes must eventually rise, perhaps this moment of economic fragility is not the best time to raise them. With public and market confidence as low as it is, the Tea Party may have chosen a poor moment to make its stand, but that error, grave though it was, should not detract from the message itself. I mention this because one obvious explanation of why the Senate leadership and the president yielded is that, acting as grownups with a country to run, they decided that the other side had a point.

Since, however, few people seem inclined to accept this account of events, let me suggest a structural explanation for the seeming failure of the Senate to calm the political storms.

The Founders cherished the relative independence of the Senate as a crucial check on political passion. But the independence of all legislators, including the senators, has been hobbled by the way in which modern digital media allow those of strong ideological conviction to band together more easily and follow more precisely every utterance of every public opinion. This development is rightly celebrated and is strongly pro-democratic (small “d”), empowering those the establishment ignores. We should note, however, that it is also anti-republican (small “r”), costing us the services of the Burkean politician, the man or woman who believes that legislators owe us not a slavish serving of our smallest desire, but the constant exercise of their judgment, conscience, and prudence. In such an atmosphere, reasoned debate and thoughtful compromise become enormously difficult to achieve.

Thus the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913 to provide for direct election of the Senate, may have been a mistake. Previously, senators had been appointed by state legislatures, a fact that insulated them from at least some of the reelection pressures experienced by members of the House. (One might object that many state legislatures, too, fall prey to the passions of the moment, but the legislatures suffer from an insufficiency of public attention: had the states retained the power to appoint senators, the citizenry would surely keep better track of legislative elections.)

How can all of this be fixed? We might usefully begin by repealing the Seventeenth Amendment and returning the selection of Senators to the state legislatures. But tinkering with the constitutional structure will not resolve the fundamental problem, which lies in our culture, and in ourselves. The nation’s attention span has grown so short that while we might seem, at first blush, obsessed with politics, we are really obsessed with political commentary, with following the latest and snarkiest slogan aimed at the side we happen to disagree with. We are less inclined than ever to give politicians the space to argue for their views at any length; we are not interested in being persuaded. What we care about is the bottom line—as long as the bottom line is no more than 140 characters. This tendency rewards, on both sides of the aisle, the politics of slogan and emotional appeal, cheerleading rather than governance. In such an atmosphere, it is all but impossible for government to be done seriously.