Faster, Please!

Davy Crockett and The Great Shutdown of '13

When I was very young — 25, or thereabouts — I had just arrived in Florence to start learning Italian with a proper Tuscan accent, and as I was mastering the subtleties of the menu in the student mensa and urgent phrases like “where’s the bathroom, please?”, the government fell (over Vietnam, no less).  This was a first for me, and I didn’t realize it was actually fairly normal in my soon-to-be second country, and I was plenty worried.  So the next morning I struck up a bit of a conversation with the nice man at the coffee bar down the block.

“There’s no government,” I observed.

“Right,” he said.

“What are we going to do?”  I asked

“God willing it will last, and they won’t raise taxes.”

It was the first time my mind had entertained the thought that a country without a sitting government might not be a total catastrophe.

We’re not in anything like that condition, as everybody knows.  We’ve still got a government, and our elected officials are arguing about how much of our money to spend, and on what.  And along these lines, please take a few minutes to read the best commentary on the so-called “shutdown” from America’s most literate newspaper, the New York Sun.  It’s unsigned, but it reads like Seth Lipsky, America’s greatest living editor, and the author of a fine book on the Constitution.

Whoever wrote it makes a couple of great points that have gone missing in the wild debate over “whose fault is it?”  First, that it’s quite wrong to talk about “defunding Medicare,” since it hasn’t ever been funded.  And second, contrary to the president’s rant about Congress fulfilling its legal responsibilities, the Constitution contains no requirement that Congress vote a budget.  The Sun says it better than I can, so read it, but those are the takeaways.

Meanwhile, there’s the question the newsies keep asking, namely “whose fault is it?” That is actually a tricky way of saying “we’re blaming the Republicans.”  But there’s a prior question, the one prompted by my coffee guy in Florence in 1965:  Is this such a bad thing?  Yes, people are suffering, including two family members who are currently without pay.  Yes, it’s horrible that the Scrooges in the White House and the Democrat Party won’t pony up the money for the sick kids in federally funded hospitals.  Etcetera, etcetera.

On the other hand, once upon a time when Davy Crockett was in Congress, a bill came up to award a pension to the widow of a universally admired military man.  It was about to pass when Crockett spoke:

Mr. Speaker — I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it.

We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I have never heard that the government was in arrears to him. This government can owe no debts but for services rendered, and at a stipulated price. If it is a debt, how much is it? Has it been audited, and the amount due ascertained? If it is a debt, this is not the place to present it for payment, or to have its merits examined. If it is a debt, we owe more than we can ever hope to pay, for we owe the widow of every soldier who fought in the War of 1812 precisely the same amount.

There is a woman in my neighborhood, the widow of as gallant a man as ever shouldered a musket. He fell in battle. She is as good in every respect as this lady, and is as poor. She is earning her daily bread by her daily labor; but if I were to introduce a bill to appropriate five or ten thousand dollars for her benefit, I should be laughed at, and my bill would not get five votes in this House. There are thousands of widows in the country just such as the one I have spoken of, but we never hear of any of these large debts to them. Sir, this is no debt.

The government did not owe it to the deceased when he was alive; it could not contract it after he died. I do not wish to be rude, but I must be plain. Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity.

Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much of our own money as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.

I don’t have anything to add.