Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Economy & Business

George Will Compares This Budget Deadlock To Past Conflicts


This is one of those moments when people say they hate Washington. Actually, almost every moment is a moment when people say they hate Washington. But having lived in Washington for decades, the columnist George F. Will sees another side of it.

GEORGE F. WILL: I love the monuments. It's a beautiful city. American history is everywhere your eye falls. And if you love American history, it's a great place to live.

INSKEEP: George Will remains one of the nation's more prominent conservatives, having written newspaper columns for 40 years. He spent 32 years as a fixture on a Sunday news show, ABC's "This Week." Millions of Americans, including me, watched him while growing up. When the program moved to New York, Will enjoyed it less. So last week he switched to Fox News, where he can stay in the capital he loves. We talked about the partial government shutdown in Will's office in Georgetown.

What do you think of President Obama's argument that the Republican strategy here, which some Republicans have described as focusing on crisis points - what do you think of the president's argument that that's changing the constitutional arrangement somewhat, trying to make one part of one house dictate the terms?


INSKEEP: You're shaking your head.

WILL: This is the Madisonian scheme. Each institution shall be the jealous asserter of its prerogatives and try to maximize its power. I sometimes think that when he was at Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama cut class the day they got to the separation of powers, 'cause he seems to consider it not just an inconvenience but an indignity that although he got 270 electoral votes and therefore gets to be president, he didn't get everything. The Madisonian scheme is for the government to be hard to move. It's supposed to be. People look at Washington and say, oh gosh, this is so difficult. It's supposed to be difficult.

INSKEEP: We had the president on the other day and I think he would agree with you that it's supposed to be difficult but would argue that it's Republicans in the House who are trying to short-circuit the system. Rather than getting a repeal law through the House, getting it through the Senate, getting a president who will sign it, they want to use the debt ceiling or they want to use the continuing resolution to impose changes they could not get in other ways.

WILL: How does this short-circuit the system? I mean I hear Democrats say the Affordable Care Act is the law, as though we're supposed to genuflect at that sunburst of insight and move on. Well, the Fugitive Slave Act was the law, separate but equal was the law - lots of things were the law and then we changed them. And this is a part of the bruising, untidy, utterly democratic technique for changing laws.

INSKEEP: The president raised the possibility of a Democrat using the debt ceiling to impose gun control in the country. Would that be appropriate?

WILL: It's been tried - something like that. In 1973, as I'm sure you know, the debt ceiling came up and Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, attached a campaign finance scheme to the debt ceiling. Didn't work. This is not novel.

INSKEEP: So, it's not novel to use the debt ceiling as a lever is what you're arguing.

WILL: That is correct.

INSKEEP: You have written, though, that you seem to think that it's unwise strategy for the House Republicans to go after Obamacare in this particular way. What did you mean by that?

WILL: I mean it wouldn't work. A tactic is supposed to have at least an articulable path to victory and success. And I don't see it.

INSKEEP: And you still don't see it.

WILL: Nope.

INSKEEP: What do you think of Speaker Boehner, who seems to agree with that point of view, based on everything we've heard? He wanted to go a different way but concluded that he had to go with some of his members who wanted to pursue this tactic and drive it through to the end. Do you think he's doing the right thing?

WILL: He has a constituency. And there's a particular faction in there that is particularly determined, and it's a small group, and it knows how to make the most of its strength.

INSKEEP: You get the impression when you read reporting from House Republican meetings - there was one this week - and what came out of that meeting was that the members themselves did not seem to know exactly what they wanted or how to get it.

WILL: I think that's right. Again, this is not novel. Let me go back 40-some years. I came to Washington on January 1st, 1970. By May, or in June of that year, Nixon had ordered the incursion into Cambodia.

INSKEEP: Going from Vietnam into Cambodia, right.

WILL: Yep, Vietnam War. All kinds of turmoil. Then there was a big argument about the Cooper Church amendment. It said no appropriated funds shall be used to sustain the operations in Cambodia - trying to use the power of the purse to effect fundamental changes in American policy, this time in foreign policy. This is not new. This is why Madison - my hero - emphasized where you put the power of the purse.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mention James Madison, because his name has come up in this debate. There are Republican lawmakers who have mentioned one of the Federalist Papers that he coauthored - Federalist 58 - in which he uses the phrase, the power of the purse, as being one of the great powers of the House of Representatives. I went and read that paper, read the rest of it, and there's a part where he's musing about a large legislature and the way that its decisions can become mysterious and passion overrules reason. Is there a risk of that in this situation?

WILL: Sure. The word "leader" appears in the Federalist Papers 13 times. By lead they really meant incite, stir up, cause problems. The political problem, as Madison understood it, is at bottom a problem of passions. And the entire architecture of our government is an attempt to moderate through a deliberative process the passions that are endemic to popular government. So, when we see passions in play, we shouldn't be startled. That's the problem. We knew they're always in play. Rather we should say, how are we doing at moderating them?

INSKEEP: Well, George F. Will, thanks very much.

WILL: Enjoyed it.

INSKEEP: The columnist George Will, who after 32 years on ABC has now moved to Fox News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.