Marty Wiseman: Oct. 1, a day to remember

October 1, 2013 9:51:27 AM



I wonder how many others were glued to C-Span at 1:00 on a recent Sunday morning listening to the speeches from the floor of the United States House of Representatives preceding a vote whose outcome was a foregone conclusion.  


I am risking having my sanity called into question when I admit that I was and that I was far more fascinated than the level of intrigue called for. The speeches in the middle of the night made on the floor which, for the most part, alternated between the Democrats and the Republicans might just as well have been beamed in from separate planets rather than having been delivered as they were from a few feet away from each other.  


The question has been oft repeated lately by those not paid to understand the machinations of government: "What happens now?" Others ask, "When has it been like this?" Indeed, I hope this observer's next paycheck does not depend on knowing just how far this Congressional deadlock can go and what will happen if it does indeed persist.  


Two major things take place on Oct. 1. It is the first day that enrollment in health care insurance plans as prescribed by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) began. Secondly, it is also the first day of a new fiscal year in which a new budget or at least a new continuing resolution commenced functioning. The only problem was that a significant segment of the United States House maintained that if the health care signup moves forward then the budget will not. The bottom line was no budget no government funding. 


Has Congress ever witnessed such a sharp division between the two major parties in their opinions of the role of government? Have they ever reached such a bitter impasse? A search for answers as to what history can tell us about Congress and its experiences in discovering the indispensable art of compromise following a period of deadlock is not very rewarding, and it can be somewhat disheartening. For instance, the period of greatest disagreement and refusal to engage in a meeting of the minds is undoubtedly the years immediately prior to the Civil War. John C. Calhoun, perhaps the Ted Cruz of his day, supplied the language of "nullification and interposition" that later lead to the rationale for secession of the Southern states.  


The 34th Congress in 1855 began with pro-slavery and anti-slavery advocates killing each other in the "Bleeding Kansas" territory. The violence made it to the Capitol when Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner denounced Congressional members who supported slavery and was subsequently caned within an inch of his life by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor. Ultimately, the Southern states made good on their threats to secede from the union. 


In more modern times there have been major uprisings. In March of 1956, 19 Senators and 77 House members signed and issued "The Southern Manifesto." This document was composed as a reaction by Southerners to the U. S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954 ending the legal practice of maintaining "separate but equal" facilities for black and white citizens. "The Southern Manifesto" stated in no uncertain terms the determination of the South not to abide by the holding of the Court in the Brown decision. Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, like Calhoun a century earlier, took up the call for "nullification" by the states of federal laws with which these Southern states disagreed. Years of bloody conflict followed as the Civil Rights movement began in earnest. 


The current situation in the nation's capital is compounded significantly as Oct. 17 has been pegged as the absolute date by which the ceiling on the Federal debt must be raised or the country risks defaulting on its previously incurred debt. In preparation for that debate, Republicans in the U. S. House have prepared a laundry list of virtually every prominent issue on their agenda which they claim must be addressed before the ceiling can be raised. Of course this list includes delaying implementation of the Affordable Care Act for a year. At this juncture neither the legislation attached to the continuing resolution nor the legislation associated with the debt ceiling stands any chance of passing the Democratically-held Senate. This is where we run out of answers. Furthermore, the lines have formed just as planned on Oct. 1 to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.  


It was said by one commentator that "compromise is the life blood of our representative Democracy." Another opined that negotiation and compromise comprised the fuel that makes the engine of American Democracy run. It was quite evident from the midnight House debate that all the lines and all of the talking points in defense of the two parties' positions have been used many times over. The ultimate outcomes provided to us by history are too dismal to contemplate.  


What remains is the answer to the question "How are we going to get out of this wilderness and who is going to lead us?"