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View from the Hill Blog: The Debt Ceiling Oligarchy

By Nicole Palya Wood, View from the Hill National Grange Legislative Blog (8/1/11)

  AUGUST 3, 2011 --

An agreement has finally been reached within Congress to ensure the nation avoids a default on its debt. Debates on both House Speaker Boehner’s proposal and Senate Leader Reid’s bill never really occurred. But rather than getting into the details of the measure that finally passed, the most shocking thing about the debt ceiling debate is that there was NO DEBATE. If House Boehner were successful in whipping enough votes to get his bill called up, it would have been the first time the issue of raising the debt ceiling had been brought to the floor for a traditional debate in this Congress. Senate Leader Reid didn’t even try to debate his package.

Over the years, Washington has grown accustomed to congressional stalemate; however, this crisis has brought forth an unconventional, perhaps even unconstitutional, method in which both parties have left the American legislative process all but abandoned.

To the public, there have been 6 major players in the debt ceiling debate; Speaker Boehner, House Minority Leader Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, and President Obama. Their fellow representatives have all but been left out of discussions. Senator Mike Lee of Utah stated; “To negotiate a deal under cover of darkness, behind closed doors and then come in at the final hour, just as what happened a few months ago with the continuing resolution [to avert a government shutdown], and say, ‘Here’s the deal. It’s prebaked. You take it, or you leave it.’ It’s terrible, and it’s got to stop.”

The traditional, democratic approach to constructing and passing legislation would require that a representative first draft a bill, after which it is introduced on the floor and referred to a committee of jurisdiction. There it is considered, discussed, reviewed, and if approved, put on the legislative calendar, and then brought to the floor for a fair and honest debate. Speaker Boehner acknowledged that much of this process has been left out of the current situation; “the truth is, much of the work of committees has been co-opted by the leadership. In too many instances, we no longer have legislators; we just have voters.” What the Speaker failed to address is by leaving representatives out of discussions, it is really those they represent who are silenced.

Maybe Congress needs to take a lesson from the states. Having worked in 2 state capitols and actively lobbied in 10, I have yet to see a chamber floor that is not abuzz with activity. The floor of the senate and house chamber of a state capitol is the grand stage and marketplace for laws to be debated, votes swapped and policy created. For those of us with a passion for the process, it is a sacred meeting ground with a tenable, contagious energy and definitely not one that can be replaced by a handful of elected leaders sitting around a table at the White House on a Sunday afternoon in sportcoats.

Larry Sabato is a Professor and Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics who was on Fox News this past week talking about the debt ceiling debate. I don’t always agree with Larry but he is extremely bright and this morning highlighted a really good point. No one is debating this issue other than the pundits, and the pundits “couldn’t win a local election for dogcatcher.” The elected officials are there to carry the voter water and so far, they haven’t been given much of a chance. It doesn’t matter if the legislator is a green freshman Tea-party republican or an institutional social-program-obsessed democrat, they were sent by their constituents to be a mouthpiece and debate legislation. The gang of six have been given their chance and their progress on the debt ceiling was slow and painful. Let some outside debate and new ideas in. After all, the last time I checked the United States Legislative system was not intended to be an Oligarchy.

Nicole Palya Wood
National Grange Legislative Director

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