WASHINGTON – As we celebrate the Fourth of July, who can argue that our democracy is working the way the founders intended? And who can deny that most of the blame for dysfunction must fall to the Republican Party?
George Washington distrusted all political parties. He warned in his farewell address that as they alternated power, parties would act in “the spirit of revenge” – rather than, presumably, in the best interests of the nation. The “disorders and miseries” that resulted, Washington feared, would inevitably threaten democracy.
For most of American history, the major parties, even while differing sharply on philosophy and policy, have acted in a spirit of shared enterprise. There are significant exceptions – notably the years leading up to the Civil War. There was no possible compromise on an issue so fundamental as slavery.
Today, we face no question of such magnitude. Yet Republicans have decided not to collaborate with President Barack Obama in fulfilling the most basic obligations of government, preferring to let “disorders and miseries” fester rather than address them.
Perhaps the House Republicans who block Obama’s legislative proposals and the Senate Republicans who block his executive and judicial appointments are acting in narrow political self-interest. Perhaps, as much of the overheated GOP rhetoric suggests, they are acting with the vengeful animus that Washington feared.
Whatever the motivation, Republicans have paralyzed our government in a way that would have shocked and depressed the founders. Compounding the outrage, Republicans have the temerity to criticize Obama for using his executive powers in the national interest. This is dangerously close to nihilism.
Witness the humanitarian crisis along the border with Mexico: Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have entered the United States. Many of these boys and girls are fleeing predatory criminal gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and thus may qualify for asylum. Some may have been sent to establish a foothold here for their parents.
The influx of children cannot be meaningfully addressed without considering the larger suite of immigration issues. An estimated 11 million people are already living and working here with no papers. A real solution must involve not only increased border security but also a way for the undocumented to achieve residency and citizenship. There also must be a revamping of the formal immigration system so that crossing the border illegally is not the only option for economic migrants.
The Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill a year ago, but House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, refuses to bring it to the floor because he knows it would pass. Since most of the House GOP caucus opposes the reform bill, the votes to approve it would come from Democrats plus a few dozen Republicans.
Think about this for a moment. Urgently needed legislation has been passed by the Senate, is supported by the president and has enough votes in the House. Yet it goes nowhere, as chaos on the border worsens and thousands of children remain in limbo. Is this what the Founders had in mind?
Lord knows the Democratic Party is far from perfect. But House Democrats, when they were in the majority, at least understood that the government had to function, even if its policies were not those they preferred. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi was speaker, for example, she made certain that bills funding the occupation of Iraq made it through the House, even though a majority of Democrats bitterly opposed the war.
Today’s Republican Party opposes the Affordable Care Act, so it refuses to work with the Obama administration in legislating technical fixes that would make the law work more smoothly. Is this in any sense patriotic? Having lost battles over the law in Congress and the Supreme Court, don’t Republicans have an obligation to make it serve their constituents as well as possible?
Both parties used to understand the need to invest in infrastructure, for reasons of competitiveness and safety. Both parties used to understand there could be no serious threat to send the Treasury into default. Both parties used to cheer the kind of good economic news we heard Thursday – 288,000 new jobs in June, unemployment down to 6.1 percent.
But now, one party – the GOP – cares more about ideology, re-election and opposing Obama’s every initiative than about the well-being of the nation. It is scant comfort, on Independence Day, to remember that the republic has survived worse.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.