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The arrogance of power

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Article I of the Constitution establishes the bicameral legislature that is supposed to help rule this nation. It has a number of powers granted by Article I, including the power to declare war.

But here is the first duty granted Congress in the Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; ...”

The framers of the Constitution recognized that, before waging war, Congress has an obligation to “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare.” In other words, Congress is charged with seeing to the proper operations of the U.S. government.

Sadly, it has completely failed that charge. Today, the nation has no proper budget in place, has no meaningful way of paying the debts and providing for the general welfare of its citizens. We are defended, that is true; military posts such as Fort Drum are able to operate. But as to the larger question, meeting the nation’s obligations, Congress has punted.

It has come to this — as it has always come to this — over a far less significant political dispute than upholding the Constitution. This time, a group of conservative Republican representatives, many if not all of whom associate to some degree with the tea party movement, have decided that they have the right to hijack the day-to-day operations of the nation to try to force the effective repeal of legislation they otherwise have insufficient power to affect, the Affordable Care Act.

Their position is so extreme that colleagues such as Rep. Peter King, R-Seaford, have blamed them for the shutdown. Rep. King, whose recent urging for compromise has labeled him as a moderate, would have been firmly in the conservative camp a decade ago. No longer, however, as the term conservative is beginning to equate with a stubborn refusal to compromise — on anything.

The problem with the tea party philosophy is that it is deconstructionist. Its advocates are more than willing to try to tear down anything to which they object. But they seldom offer any alternative solutions. Take the Affordable Care Act. The opponents appear unwilling to settle for anything short of repeal. To believe in repeal, you must believe that there is nothing wrong with the nation’s health-care system, that having millions of Americans without insurance and without access to decent health care is just fine.

But it isn’t. How can there be justification for this nation, with all its wealth, with it’s far advanced standard of living, to have a health-care system that would all but shut out 40 million or more citizens? Should anyone in this country really be expected to choose between medicine and food, or heat?

It would be hard to canvass the country and find many people who think the Affordable Care Act is anywhere close to being perfect. But it is the law of the land, duly enacted by Congress and signed by the president. Its opponents have some options under the rules of our government. They can try to repeal it, which would take an affirmative vote in both houses in sufficient numbers to override a likely presidential veto. It’s pretty clear that this option doesn’t exist with a Democratically controlled Senate. Or they could gather sufficient evidence of the weak points of the act and attempt to amend it — a path nowhere near as steep and perhaps possible within the constraints of this Congress.

However, the tea party conservatives don’t wish to play by the rules established by the Constitution. They have embarked upon a bullying path of obstructionism, holding all of government hostage to a single issue. The Peter Kings of Congress understand this isn’t how government must work. The tea party faction thinks it’s just fine because they are so convinced of their rectitude, of their supreme ability to know what is “right” in a world of infinite choices. It is political arrogance of the highest order. No one is omniscient, however.

The new conservatives don’t think there is an “art” of governing. It is, for them, a war to be won at any cost, with no regard for the bodies littering the battlefield. Unfortunately, as in most wars, the collateral damage extends far beyond the combatants. The collateral damage from this most recent battle will extend to the U.S. economy, in many ways. Here in the north country, for example, Jefferson County is holding its breath to see how the furloughs of civilian employees at Fort Drum will affect their spending — and the county’s sales tax returns. And the civilian employees who are suddenly not working and not getting paychecks are no doubt wondering how they are going to survive, to pay their mortgages, to buy their children clothes.

The conservatives have tossed a boulder into the pond without any concern for where the ripples go or what they overturn. You can only hope that next year, when all of the House and a third of the Senate are up for a referendum on their performance, the voters will remember just who brought about this failure of governance.

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