House Republicans in their retreat this week in Williamsburg, Va. should take some time to tour the colonial historic site and think about the men who created America as a country.
They will be meeting in the shadow of Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other leaders who understood the reality of political power and the nature of the constitutional system which had roots in the Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215. In that document, the barons got the King to concede that he could only levy taxes they approved. This document was the beginning of the movement toward empowering the legislative body and limiting the executive.
If Republicans would spend more time thinking about historic lessons and less time complaining about President Obama, they could begin to understand just how hard wielding power is.
A few miles from Williamsburg they can visit Jamestown where Captain John Smith that very first summer in 1607 set the American standard that “if you don’t work, you won’t eat” — the opposite of the left’s model of redistribution.
Then they can drive another few miles to Yorktown. I recently wrote a book about the great courage, strategic daring, and enormous gamble Washington took to win the battle of Yorktown, which effectively defeated the British and won American Independence.
These history lessons are useful because they create a context in which the House Republicans can confront a simple truth.
President Obama is treating them with contempt and disdain because they let him.
The President is who he is.
He ran for reelection as a big government liberal who believes in more spending, more taxes and more power in Washington.
With every speech and press conference President Obama reaffirms his contempt for Republicans and his disdain for working with them. (Just read this week’s vicious description of the Republicans in his press conference as an example.)
Obama isn’t going to “moderate,” “be reasonable,” “show leadership,” or “compromise”.
The President is going to push America as far to the left as he can.
The President is going to demand everything and offer nothing.
The President is going to be disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst, in taking on Republicans.
Instead of trying to appease or change President Obama, Congressional Republicans have to come to grips with who they are and what their powers are.
The American Constitution is a simple but very tough document.
It was written by very experienced men who had fought a revolutionary war for eight years.
These Founding Fathers had grown up in a system of legislators fighting royal governors.
They understood fully the power of the purse and they vested it in the Congress.
The Founding Fathers believed respect was earned, not given.
They would have said to the House Republicans, “Examine your role under the Constitution. Look at the enormous power we have given you to confront and control an executive branch that is out of control.”
The House Republicans should then focus on what they believe and decide to fund what they want to fund.
They should split the Continuing Resolution into a series of separate bills and methodically begin eliminating government agencies by simply refusing to fund them after March 31.
They should then attach the easiest to defend entitlement reforms (block-granting Medicaid — where most of the 30 Republican Governors would support them — and combining various welfare programs into one single program as Peter Ferrara has suggested), and attach them to the least important smaller continuing funding bills (e.g. Department of Labor , Department of Housing and Urban Development).
If the President wants to veto them, fine. Then he runs out of money for those institutions.
The Founding Fathers designed constitutional government around real power.
They expected presidents to be strong, assertive chief executives.
They expected the Congress to use the power of the purse to limit the power of those presidents.
As Madison wrote in Federalist #58:
“The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse — that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”
House Republicans can earn President Obama’ s respect by picking the spending fights they can win and then cheerfully relaxing and accepting as much victory as Obama’s arrogance forces them to insist on.
In the end, under our Constitution the Congress has more power than the president.
That power, however, only exists when we have Congressmen and Congresswomen courageous enough to exercise it and smart enough to pick the right fights and then win the communications fight.
Until House Republicans assert their Constitutional powers they should expect the President to continue to treat them with contempt and disdain.
Real negotiations will begin only after they have defunded parts of his government.
Achieving that should be the focus of the Williamsburg conference.