From time to time, I have had conversations over the last few years with a friend of mine, a historian of Weimar Germany, comparing our situation to theirs. We haven't talked for a couple of months, but a new and unmistakable parallel has emerged. It suggests that our domestic crisis is far from over, and it does not bode well for the short-term future of American democracy.
The designers of the Weimar Republic were sincere democrats who took various elements of their constitution from existing Republics. They decided on proportional representation for the Reichstag, the parliament, which probably gave an advantage to extreme parties whose support was scattered around the country. They also created a strong President elected by the popular vote, and even gave him emergency powers to carry on the essential functions of government should the legislature fail to agree. In so doing they followed a precedent from German history: Otto von Bismarck, as Prime Minister of Prussia, had successfully exercised such powers from 1861 until 1867, governing with the existing budget when Parliament refused to pass a new one. There is of course no such provision for emergency powers in either the unwritten British or the American Constitutions. The federal government can neither spend nor borrow money without an explicit authorization from the Congress.
This is as good a place as any for me to introduce a new element into the budget discussion: as far as I can tell, the United States is not in the least threatened with default if Congress does not act by August 2. The US Government is currently authorized to carry a debt of a certain amount--checking I find it is apparently $14.294 trillion--and I assume that that authorization is indefinite. Thus, even after August 2, the government would be able to borrow money every time an existing obligation came due, since that would not increase the overall debt. But it would not be able to borrow more money to make additional expenditures. Given the size of the government deficit, that is, the amount of current government expenditures not covered by revenues, that would indeed be catastrophic for government and the American people, but it would not be a default. If the Republicans really meant what they are saying they might in fact argue that the government's job is to start balancing its revenues and expenditures on August 3, but of course they haven't.
But back to the topic. The Weimar Constitution required a strong, sincerely republican president to function effectively, and German voters initially elected just such a man, Friedrich Ebert, a social democrat. Tragically, however, he died in 1925 at the age of 54, and in a close election German voters replaced him with the right wing candidate, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, who did not believe in the Republic at all (and in fact asked the deposed Emperor William II for permission to run for this illegitimate office.) But as late as 1928, the Weimar government was firmly in the hands of a center-left coalition, led by another Social Democrat, Hermann Muller. That government fell in 1930 and the new Chancellor, Heinrich Bruening, called for new elections. They catastrophically increased the power of the Nazis and the Communists and made it impossible for any government to command a Reichstag majority for the rest of the Weimar Republic's short life. For the next two years, all budgets were passed under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, providing for emergency presidential decrees. Bruening for two years cut the budget in the midst of a depression, making it worse, increasing the Nazi vote, and paving the way for the final catastrophe.
The Nazis and Communists refused to take responsibility for governing their nation. The Republicans have been doing the same, insisting on absolutely impossible conditions before increasing the debt limit and allowing the government to function, because their House majority refuses to vote for anything that violates their principles of budget-cutting and no new taxes. Their policies, particularly the Paul Ryan budget, would return us to something like the Gilded Age once and for all. Some of them evidently would be glad to stop government borrowing right now, and they may indeed prevail over the next two weeks, although I think that is unlikely. But Mitch McConnell--who like Joe Biden belongs, barely, to the Silent Generation (b. 1942)--has lost his nerve, and I think John Boehner has as well, although he is still putting up a brave front. McConnell has come forward with a proposal designed in effect to turn the United States into something similar to the Weimar Republic in 1931-2, that is, to give the President emergency powers to deprive Congress, which refuses to do its job, of one of its most essential functions.
McConnell apparently is willing to give the President the authority to raise the debt ceiling himself, subject only to approval of one-third of each house. That will allow the government to continue to function while leaving every single Republican in Congress free to vote against what is happening. It is surely unconstitutional--I do not believe the Congress is free to abdicate its powers, although it has done so on several occasions recently already. It illustrates the inability of the majority that Fox News and Clear Channel have brought into being to face reality and be honest with themselves about the necessary role of the federal government and the need to pay for it. It also illustrates the incredible power of Grover Norquist, an unelected official who has never held any government office who can single-handedly prevent tax increases which we desperately need. The McConnell compromise no looks like the most likely solution to the crisis. President Obama yesterday signally failed to insist on a broader deal. It will allow our government to function, but it will also confirm that our democracy, like Weimar after 1930, isn't functioning at all. One reason the United States is in such trouble today is that its Boomer and Xer politicians have no respect for established traditions or laws. They care only about pleasing their backers and their constituents. It may turn out that some genuine reverence for our Constitution--something that history departments and law schools have also more or less stopped teaching--is necessary to make it work.
What happened in Weimar? In 1932 Hindenburg was barely re-elected running against Hitler. (He had now become the candidate of the Left, since he seemed to be the only man who could defeat the Nazi leader.) But as the economic crisis got worse and worse because of budget austerity, he was eventually persuaded to appoint Hitler Chancellor as head of a center-right coalition in January 1933. Hitler immediately claimed various emergency powers of his own and within a few months had convinced the Reichstag to vote itself out of existence.
I have argued before, and still believe, that today's Republicans have essentially noting in common with the Nazis from a policy point of view, even though many of their rhetorical tactics are very similar. The Nazis wanted big government and a strong state; the Republicans are moving as quickly as they can to destroy our state and federal governments. But the Republicans, like the Nazis, have scored a big enough electoral triumph thanks to the economic crisis to make the country ungovernable by traditional means. In addition--and this may turn out to be the critical point--they have moved the political debate catastrophically to the right. In the midst of the second-worst economic crisis in our history we are not arguing about whether to cut the budget, but about how much to cut it. Both the federal government and virtually every state government in America are taking steps that will make the economic situation worse, and President Obama will pay for that at the polls next year. The only question is--how much?
Politically Obama has been rather clever in trying to seize the center over the last few months, and he has won centrist pundits like David Brooks over to his side. If he could secure his grand bargain to include some (although not nearly enough) tax increases and entitlement cuts, he could actually bring the current crisis to an end, and that obviously is what he would like to do. The Republicans, however, are determined not to let him. They will neither give up their policies which will make the economy worse, nor give up their right to blame the President for everything. (This very interesting interview with a Congressional budget staffer strongly suggests that there will be no deal before August 2 for the reasons that I just cited. It's a rare glimpse into the inside of the Republican Party right now and I recommend it very highly.) Whether that works depends on what happens to the economy and I am afraid that it may actually get worse. If it does, we may indeed find ourselves in January 2013 with President Romney or Bachmann or Perry in the White House and Republican majorities in both houses. That will mean the dismantling of the entire modern government of the United States, further economic catastrophe, and a very uncertain political future.