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October 08, 2013 1:02 PM It’s Harry Reid’s Alamo Too

By James Wimberley

Harry Reid’s political interests are loosely aligned with President Obama’s but they are not identical. (For one thing, Reid cares a lot more about the 2016 election.) It’s striking that in the current showdown with John Boehner’s House Republicans, they are both standing firm. No surrender, no negotiation.

Boehner is, willingly or not, leading an attempt at not one but two constitutional revolutions, that it took the Westminster House of Commons 270 years to achieve. The first is against the President or monarch: to use the power of the purse to establish the supremacy of the parliamentary majority over the executive. Westminster started this fight in 1641 and won it with Charles I’s execution in 1649.

The second is to establish the supremacy of the lower over the upper house. After a trial run in 1832 over Grey’s Reform Bill, the House of Commons established its primacy over the Lords with the1911 Parliament Act. The vistory came after a huge struggle sparked by Lloyd George’s redistributive “People’s Budget” of 1909. Boehner’s proposals would downgrade the Senate from an equal partner to a consultative appendage to the House, not only on the budget but on any controversial legislation like ACA.

Reid, like Obama, has no choice but to fight this putsch to the end. Fortunately for Senate Republicans, budget procedures do not allow filibusters, so GOP Senators are spared an explicit choice between their ideology and their status. Most to them by report didn’t think much of Ted Cruz’s pseudo-filibuster.

Neither Charles I nor the House of Lords had democratic legitimacy, so the changes were clear improvements. This cannot be said of Boehner’s campaign, which if it succeeds will upend a constitution designed on the principle of a balance of powers, in order to prevent the democratic tyranny of a president or congressional majority. Americans are brought up to think this scheme superior to the untrammelled rule of a whipped Commons majority, and on balance they are right.

Some will object to the comparison. Quite apart from the merits of their causes, Speaker Lilburne, John Hampden, Charles Grey and David Lloyd George were politicians of a different calibre to John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They had also thought things through.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

James Wimberley was head of the mutual assistance section of the department of education for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and secretary to the Councilís higher education and research committee. He is retired.

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