Tonight we will not hear the President of the United States address a joint session of Congress regarding the dire economic condition of the nation. It was Mr. Obama’s intention to begin this new session of Congress by addressing the issues about which the whole country is concerned. As is well known, Speaker John Boehner has informed the President that the United States House of Representatives will be otherwise engaged.
“ ‘As the majority leader announced more than a month ago, the House will not be in session until Wednesday, Sept. 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening,’ the speaker wrote. ‘ With the significant amount of time, typically more than three hours, that is required to allow for a security sweep of the House chamber before receiving a president, it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.’ ” (“Obama Moves Jobs Speech After Skirmish With Boehner,” The New York Times, August 31, 2011)
Mr. Boehner’s unprecedented refusal to grant the President’s request has been reported, reviewed, and, from the very beginning, denounced as just another petty political squabble. Blame has been cast on both the Speaker and the President.
“ ‘If the objective of the White House and Speaker Boehner was to demonstrate to the American people that they have gotten the message from the markets and from voters that our economic straits are so dire that it is time to set petty politics aside, they have failed before they started,’ said David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration. ‘This childish gamesmanship regarding timing reconfirms to the world that Washington is a sandbox full of petulant children who don’t play well together.' He called Wednesday’s antics 'late-summer silliness.’ ” (The New York Times, same article as above)
Despite the fact that Mr. Boehner is the first member of Congress to deny a president permission to speak to a joint session of Congress, it is the President who has received the most criticism. He is accused of playing politics.
“The real story, of course, was that the White House had high-handedly announced its preferred time for the speech, which just happened to conflict with a long-planned GOP presidential candidates’ debate at the Reagan library.” (The Weekly Standard, “The Scrapbook: Dissing Boehner,” September 12, 2011)
Even before Mr. Boehner took his stand against the President’s supposedly political proposal, talk radio condemned the idea. How could the President dare to upstage a Republican Party candidate debate? It is only reasonable to conclude that Mr. Boehner’s motive to deny the President’s proposal is to thwart Mr. Obama’s alleged political gambit and please the likes of Mr. Limbaugh. His stated reason is lame. The House has no business this evening that cannot be postponed.
Other aspects to this story have been reported, mostly from anonymous sources. Most of what has been reported is irrelevant. It remains that Mr. Boehner has done what has never been done before. In this, he has shown that, despite the fact that the Republican Party likes to wrap itself in the Constitution and boast its fidelity to the intentions of the Founding Fathers, it knows and cares little for either.
Let us grant the Republican contention that Mr. Obama scheduled his address to Congress to upstage Republican candidate debate. I do not know that this is so. It is, however, the best reason the Republicans have to deny the President’s request. So let it stand.
The activities of any political party should not interfere with the work of the elected government. A single debate, this early, is of negligible importance, particularly when compared to an official address by the sitting president.
The Republicans are far from selecting a candidate for the coming election. They have held one straw poll, in which Mrs. Bachman was selected. The Iowa straw poll historically has had little positive effect on selecting the eventual Republican candidate and even less on the results of the national election. Mrs. Bachmann’s victory was quickly eclipsed by Texas Governor Rick Perry’s mere announcement of his candidacy.
Even with Mr. Perry’s announcement, there is dissatisfaction among Republicans with the candidates vying for the ticket. Despite the fact time is growing short, there are calls for Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Chris Christie and even Mrs. Sarah Palin to enter the race.
The Republican contention that tonight’s debate should take precedence over a president's speech to Congress is nothing less than hubris.
The Constitution established three branches of government, the legislative, executive, and judicial. There is no mention of political parties. Political parties have no official standing in the work of government. In fact, the Founding Fathers disliked the idea of political parties and hoped that the nation could do without them.
The Republicans should know this if they knew the Constitution and its history as they claim. James Madison penned Federalist 10 as a warning against political parties, which he called “factions.” The Founding Fathers hope of politics without political parties did not survive their lifetime, and even Mr. Madison became a member of a political party. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers would be appalled to see this day when a single party’s candidate debate interferes with the work of the elected government.
Perhaps some would question the wisdom of Mr. Obama using his office to upstage a single debate of the opposing party’s candidate debate. Let them. There is no reason that any sitting president should take into consideration the internal work of the opposing party in the rightful execution of his duties. More importantly, there is no reason the opposing party should expect such consideration.
The Constitution established three branches of government. Mr. Boehner won a majority of the votes of the 8th congressional district of Ohio to become a member of the lower chamber of the legislative branch. The majority of that lower chamber elected Mr. Boehner Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mr. Boehner thus represents both the 8th congressional district and one half of the bicameral legislature.
The President of the United States is elected by the whole nation, albeit indirectly through the Electoral College. Mr. Obama won the office of President of the United States by a clear majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College – without the assistance of a decision of the Supreme Court. He represents not a district, or even a state. He is President of the whole country and for the whole country.
To be sure, the president is not a dictator. There are constitutional limits to his authority. The Constitution provides checks and balances so that no single branch of government has power beyond what is necessary to exercise its duties to the country.
However, the Republicans have taken the legislature beyond anything the Founding Fathers imagined. Republican senators, by the mere threat of filibuster, have turn back presidential appointments. The single disqualifying mark of an appointee is that the appointment came from Mr. Obama.
“Speaking with National Journal magazine about Republican Party priorities for the 2008-2010 Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explained that ‘the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.’ ” (Wikipedia, Mitch McConnell)
Senator McConnell has expressed clearly that the single priority of the Republican Party is not the welfare of the country, but the augmentation of the power of the Republican Party. In keeping with this priority, the Republican Party perpetrated the unnecessary debt-ceiling crisis. In keeping with this priority, Mr. Boehner denied the President of the United States a joint session of Congress. In these and several other instances the Republican Party has demonstrated that it has no respect for the constitutionally established office of the executive as long as Mr. Obama occupies it – the vote of the people be damned.
This is not the governance the Founding Fathers envisioned. This is the factionalism that James Madison abhorred.
In September 2009, the President addressed a joint session of Congress. It was there that Representative Joe Wilson set the true precedent for Mr. Boehner’s action this month. Mr. Wilson broke with tradition and shouted at the President. On September 11, 2009, I asked the question, “Is the Opposition Loyal?” on this blog (see archive). This question stands.
[Works consulted for this essay: The Debate on the Constitution, Part One, Library of America, 1993; James Madison, Writings, Library of America, 1999; Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, Richard Beeman, Random House, 2009; The Oxford Companion to United States History, edited by Paul S. Boyer, Oxford University Press, 2001.]