A man walks past a "National Debt Clock" in New York on Tuesday… (Justin Lane, EPA )
Checks and balances were written into the U.S. Constitution to prevent the tyranny of the majority: No one party or bloc could control enough of the government to run roughshod over its opponents.
But the drafters weren't quite clever enough to prevent the tyranny of the minority.
That's the reality on display in Washington today. A determined bloc that controls one house of one of the three branches of government has brought that government to a halt on behalf of an adamantine no-tax pledge with which polls say a majority of Americans don't agree. Hanging in the balance is the full faith and credit of the United States, a threat which polls say most Americans don't cotton to.
The impasse over the federal debt ceiling underscores the oft-remarked rule that in a game of brinkmanship, the side with fewer scruples and greater intransigence has the upper hand. What gives dictatorial power to a small bloc of Republican die-hards opposed to any tax increases is their apparent willingness, even eagerness, to test the consequence of a U.S. default on its debts.
Investors have thus far responded to Washington's theatrics with a relative yawn, but signs of edginess on Wall Street are growing — and the markets won't get more sanguine as the Aug. 2 deadline for action grows nearer.
Unnerved by the delay, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's has already said it might downgrade U.S. debt even if the ceiling is raised. Will anyone care about S&P's opinion? I don't know, and I don't want to find out. It's a safe bet that the delay will not make business credit easier to get or jobs easier to find. The damage to the economy could last for months or years.
Democrats in Congress and President Obama aren't willing to peer into that abyss or even walk up to the edge of it, so they've offered to sacrifice Social Security recipients and others dependent on federal programs — or barring that, to cut back on other programs on which millions of American individuals and businesses depend. As I write, the impasse continues and incompatible proposals for ending it keep flowing from both sides of the aisle.
No entity can remain stable for long when it's run by an intransigent minority. Businesses almost always fail when they operate outside the norms of society or against their shareholders' interests, and autocracies get overthrown. (Though the process can take a looooong time.)
In politics, this situation is not unique to Washington. Its close cousin exists in Sacramento, where an intransigent minority with an unbreakable veto has bollixed up budget planning for years. The cause of the California impasse is the rule requiring a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers to pass a budget or raise state taxes — or to put it another way, the power of a one-third minority to block a budget. The rule governing the budget vote dated to 1933, and the supermajority on taxes to Proposition 13 in 1978.
Can anyone argue that these two provisions, taken together, made the state better? Especially after a redistricting in 2001 turned the partisan characteristics of both parties into blocks of cement, California's budgets got worse and worse, more and more fakey, more and more brimful of bogus devises designed chiefly to allow each side to claim victories for its "principles."
Thanks to the inability to raise revenues, the state's fiscal condition collapsed, as did the quality of life. So we have worse schools, universities of shrinking stature, fewer park and library hours and a more polarized politics than ever. California voters finally began to wake from their dream world in November, when they voted out the budgetary supermajority via Proposition 25.
There are many good arguments against shutting the minority entirely out of political debate. The most obvious is that we live in a pluralistic society in which minorities have the right to participate, and in which their contributions can be beneficial.
Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist and author of a recent history of filibusters, observes that programs enacted via bipartisan votes — that is, with the minority with at least partial participation — are inherently more stable than those bulled through on party lines. These include the Bush tax cuts and the GOP Medicare prescription drug program of 2003, which were enacted with minimal Democratic support, and last year's healthcare reform, which passed without any GOP votes.
"These were essentially one-party initiatives," he told me. "The other party never consented to them and so has continued to try to undermine them."
Today's House Republicans aren't technically filibustering, but the necessity of a "yea" vote to raise the debt ceiling has given them the equivalent power to blockade. Even if an increase is eventually voted, the process has done immeasurable damage to Washington's ability to govern.
If the price of an agreement is cuts in government services without a targeted tax increase, that will be a real victory for the minority of wealthy Americans over the majority of those who benefit from a functioning government looking out for their interests. Perhaps the GOP blockade is the last gasp of a superannuated minority soon to be swept away by more powerful currents in American society. But while they hold the floor, they're behaving like tyrants, which is not a class Americans care for.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.