Belmont Club

I Saw It On TV

One of the latest memes to come out of the Middle East is the possibility of a “digital revolution”; the emergence of a kind of leaderless movement which is united by an idea. CNN writes:

From the beginning, the revolution in Egypt was propelled by the use of social media. It at least partlybegan on Facebook with the creation of Facebook groups that gained hundreds of thousands of members and promoted the early protests in Cairo.

Events can move faster than government decision-makers can interpret them. For example, ABC News reported that “President Obama was informed of Mubarak’s decision to step down during a meeting in the Oval Office, and he watched TV coverage of the scene in Cairo for several minutes in the outer Oval office.” Even the most powerful political leader in the world now shares the same information pathways as the rest of us.

But the “digital revolution” in Egypt was not new. Its immediate predecessor was evolving right under the media’s nose in the USA under the loose name of the “Tea Party”, an appellation based on events which led to the American War of Independence.  That historical name concealed the fact that the Tea Party, like all leaderless movements, was a constantly evolving 21st century thing. The National Journal Reports that “like a fast-mutating organism, the tea party morphed from protesting in 2009 to politicking in 2010. Now, in 2011, it is morphing again, this time into a force attempting to shape national policy.”

The target is health care, not too surprisingly. What is more surprising is the movement’s idiosyncratic and radical choice of tactics. Tea partiers and other conservative activists hope to repurpose a little-known constitutional provision called the compacts clause to shift almost all federal health programs—including Medicare and Medicaid, the giant entitlements—to the states.

“This is bigger than ‘Obamacare,’ ” says Leo Linbeck III, a small-business owner in Houston who has emerged as a national leader of the effort. “This is about whether we’re going to take a step back toward self-governance on a sixth of the economy.”…

The constitutional provision at issue is Article I, Section 10: “No state shall, without the consent of Congress … enter into any agreement or compact with another state.”

Compacts are binding agreements between states. Worried that states would use such agreements to usurp the federal government’s powers (for instance, by colluding to establish preferential trade zones or de facto national taxes), the Founders required Congress’s approval for any interstate deal that might impinge on federal authority.

But in so doing, they also indirectly established a process for states to seek federal grants of authority for interstate arrangements. More than 200 such compacts are in force today. Most people haven’t heard of them because they are generally mundane and uncontroversial, having to do with such things as borders, water rights, agricultural marketing, interstate law enforcement, and transportation.

The American movement has taken the next step: out of the streets and into the pathways of policy. The Health Care Compact initiative is ambitious on two levels. First in that it is taking on the gigantic issue of health care, which is the self-described center of the administration’s domestic policy. But more importantly, it is challenging it through a process that brings the States into the debate. It may be more accurate to say that rather than changing national policy per se, the Tea Party is trying to change the way in which national policy is shaped. As the National Journal says:

Moreover, the larger goal is not just to reshape health care, supporters say; it is to change the balance of power between the states and Washington. “We did not work up this approach in order to fix health care,” O’Keefe says. “We’re working it up to try to fix our political system.” If they win a health care compact, they say, they can use the same approach in a series of other areas. …

Proponents hope to pass the compact in most or all of the 28 states that have already joined suits against the health reform law. By this fall or early next year, they seek to have a majority of states on board. At that point, they will present the compact to Congress for approval.

Legally speaking, a compact has no more or less force than any other federal law. Functionally, the health care compact would be no different from Congress’s passing an ordinary bill handing health policy to the states (and, as with any law, a subsequent act of Congress could modify or cancel it). Compact advocates, however, see a crucial tactical advantage in using the unconventional, state-driven process: Presented with dozens of legislatures’ demands for health care autonomy, states’ congressional delegations will have a hard time either ducking a vote on the compact or rejecting it.

For better or worse, the Compacts are carving out new channels.  They are using the Constitution to create innovative ways to put the political question. A scholar at the American Enterprise system believes that the Compacts may not be the end, but the beginning. In themselves “the compact language may be simple, but amputating whole appendages of the federal government, transplanting the limbs onto the states, and rehabilitating what remains in Washington could require all sorts of ancillary changes in federal law, affecting everything from funding formulas to drug approval—and many of those changes would be controversial in their own right.”

“This won’t be a simple two-page congressional action saying ‘approved,’ ” says Michael Greve, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an informal adviser to compact supporters. “This would be unbelievably complex and convoluted.”

Sweating the details, however, largely misses the point. “It’s an ingenious way to accelerate and force the debate,” Greve says.

As the results of the 2010 elections and events in Tunisia and Egypt show, popular movements united by memes shared over the Internet are a real and growing force. The Traacker list of the online sources which have proved most influential in driving the online memes in Egypt look nothing like a list of established pundits or MSM figures. They include improbably enough, little known reporters, Egyptian bloggers and even an Israeli from the Jerusalem Post. How many of these are on the State Department Rolodex? Very few.  Will it matter? Who knows?

Yet by comparison the Egyptian online world is far, far less developed than its American counterpart.  Americans not only live a far denser information environment but have the added advantage of being able to organize openly and participate in elections and primaries.  Whether the Compacts will play a catalytic role in it remains to be seen. What seems safe to say is that something, sometime will catalyze things.

In the long run the modern Tea Party may be remembered much as the original was: not as an end in itself, but as an augury of something far bigger. The influence of grassroots, leaderless movements may still be minor compared to traditional political mechanisms, but they can no longer be completely discounted.  They are here and the crisis has begun. In political terms the Ides of March are come, but they are not yet gone.


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