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October 11, 2013 5:23 PM Echoes of the English Civil War

By Ed Kilgore

Maybe the current fiscal crisis is slowly winding down. But it’s entirely possible it’s just the first eruption of a periodic conflict between elements of a divided government that will get much worse down the road, if that’s possible.

Are there historic precedents to which we should pay attention, other than the over-discussed 1995 government shutdown? Well, if you look back a good while there is another example in the English-speaking world of a parliamentary faction driven by powerful religious and economic impulses to use its control over the public purse to force the executive to radically change its policies. Rutgers University’s Paul Gottlieb reminds us in a web-original piece at Ten Miles Square:

Since the government shutdown began, commentators have had plenty to say about the unprecedented, constitutional implications of today’s fight between the House of Representatives and the President. Nobody, however, has talked about an obvious historical parallel. The current dispute in Washington reminds me of the run-up to the English Civil War in the 17th century….
In 1625, King Charles I needed money for a war against Catholic powers fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. The House of Commons refused to accommodate him. Relations between King and Commons were characterized by deep distrust, following the pattern set in the reign of Charles’ father, a strong advocate of monarchical rights. One of the Commons’ main goals in refusing the new tax levy was simply to re-assert its traditional “power of the purse.” But the Commons also sought to hold the King’s money hostage for more ideological reasons, including attempts to codify fundamental rights and to press its opinion in disputes over the established church. The analogy to today’s House of Representatives, which is using the power of the purse to oppose the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, is clear. And, as in the present case, the upper house of Parliament, consisting of aristocrats loyal to the Anglican Church, tended to be more sympathetic to the king.

We all know how that turned out.

One key difference between England in the 1640s and America today is that we have a written constitution. That fact should protect us from the more extreme and unilateral forms of constitutional re-jiggering that were practiced by both sides in the English disputes of the 17th century. But, as many observers of this month’s events have pointed out, changing the precedents that are allowed within the letter of the constitution can tip the delicate balance of our three-headed government in dangerous ways. The House of Representatives is using its budget authority to give itself, not a line-item veto over new legislation, which is sometimes defensible, but line-item repeal power over laws that both houses of Congress have already passed and the President has signed. That this new practice has made American governance chaotic is clear. That it is fundamentally anti-democractic is a point that has been made by many (“one-half of one-third of the government….”).
My understanding of history tells me that the constitutional issues at stake today are not trivial, and that the ideologically-driven polarization between two branches of government is reminiscent of situations in history that have ultimately led to Parliamentary walk-outs or to political violence.

So yeah, it would be a good idea to find a way to stop this sort of constitutional usurpation congressional Republicans have attempted once and for all.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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