Andy Schmookler: Ugly times in Washington

It is painful to be living in a time when America’s politics are so ugly, so un-American. Take this most recent drama in the House of Representatives.

This drama has been about the Republicans’ tying the funding of the Department of Homeland Security together with some executive actions taken by the president regarding immigration. The purpose has been a kind of blackmail: “Give us what we want on the immigration issue, or we’ll refuse to keep America’s defenses against terrorism up and running.”

What would justify that conduct?

Are the president’s immigration moves such terrible policy? Clearly, many of the House Republicans strongly object, but it’s hard to make a case that the policy was anything extreme. Those executive actions were taken because the Republican-controlled House had refused to vote on an immigration reform measure that had passed the Senate with bi-partisan support. The president was trying, with these actions, to move things in that general direction, which incidentally also the direction that George W. Bush tried to take immigration policy when he was president.

So in policy terms, what President Obama sought to accomplish is pretty mainstream.

Although it is not pleasant to acquiesce in policies one hates, that’s what American democracy has always required. Sometimes the American people choose to give power to people we disagree with, and twice now the American people have chosen Barack Obama to be their president. It’s the American way to accept that he will wield the powers of his office as he judges right, whether we think he’s wrong or not.

But then the Republicans declare that these actions exceed the president’s constitutional authority. Quite loudly denouncing the president’s executive actions as “unconstitutional” and “lawless,” they’ve justified their extortion tactics as a way to fulfill their oath of office to defend the Constitution.
Were the president’s actions unconstitutional?

Judging from the certainty and outrage in the Republicans’ denunciations, you wouldn’t imagine there could be any doubt about it. But in fact, many of America’s most distinguished constitutional experts say that the Republicans are wrong, that President Obama was well within the established presidential powers regarding immigration.

If these executive actions promote an essentially mainstream policy, and do so via the exercise of powers that many top experts say are in accord with his constitutional powers, what justification can there be left for the ugly spectacle being enacted by the Republicans in the House of Representatives?
The constitutional issue should be decided in the courts. (At the first phase of this process, where the Republicans from a couple dozen states could cherry pick the judge to hear the case, the Republicans got a predictable victory. The experts I’ve read do not think that judge’s legal reasoning will stand.)

The policy issue should be decided by Congress doing its job, and legislating a solution to a festering national problem. That beats blocking all movement by just sitting on a bill passed by more than two-thirds of the Senate (and that would surely get a majority in the House if it were brought to the floor for a vote). Polls show that a substantial majority of the American people, including a majority of Republicans, favor moving in that direction.

There is, then, no excuse for the ugly and depressing spectacle to which the House Republicans are subjecting us all.

Our founders gave us a system of government to have our representatives do the people’s business. No faction gets its way all the time, but we go on. Those unhappy with whom the electorate has chosen to empower always have a chance in the next election to make their case to the American people.

But in the meanwhile, it is unacceptable for elected officials — who haven’t been given enough power by the electorate to work their will — to continually hijack our politics with blackmail tactics demanding that they get their way.

Andy Schmookler, the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2012, is an award-winning author who lives in Shenandoah County.