Americans could learn a little something about resolving our current government deadlock from 13th-century Italians.
In 1268, the Catholic Church was in need of a new pope. Cardinals met at a palazzo in the village of Viterbo and deliberated. And then they kept deliberating. In the midst of what eventually became a three-year papal election, the magistrates of the town got tired of waiting for a new pope. So, they locked the doors of the palazzo, refused to feed the cardinals anything but bread and water and, famously, removed the roof of the building, all the better to let in the Holy Spirit – and the elements.
(That papal election in Viterbo -- which still holds the record for longest in church history -- eventually settled on the Crusader Teobaldo Visconti, who became Pope Gregory X. The new pope immediately set new rules in place to guarantee that his successors would be picked much more quickly.)
So, why not emulate this approach to resolving our current federal budget crisis? Lock Congress in the Capitol building, tear the roof off, and wait for winter to spur some compromises.
The Congressmen and women instigating this shutdown – and who’ve been kicking this particular fiduciary can down the road for years -- live in a rarefied bubble of no serious consequences. The shutdown won’t be threatening their families or their livelihood. They will still get paid even as thousands of federal employees are furloughed, and programs that serve millions of Americans go on hiatus. Most of them have already made their fortune as lawyers or businessmen before they got elected. If they lose an election, they can bounce right back into a job on Washington DC's K Street, gumming the wheels of democracy as a lobbyist.
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is opposed to the brinksmanship of the House, though he has an interesting way of putting it: “You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot,” Coburn told reporters on Friday, according to Politico. “And we will not for sure shoot this hostage.”
Thing is, it isn’t “the government” that Republicans are taking hostage. It’s all of us. It’s the inspections that make sure our food and water and air are safe; it’s the medical research that could save lives; it’s the programs that provide food to poor mothers and children. All of these are on the sacrificial altar so that House Republicans can continue to throw a massive tantrum over the "dystopian" prospect of making health insurance slightly more affordable for Americans – a plan that, by the way, has roots in a proposal from a right-wing think tank.
Even if some sort of last-minute compromise is reached to resolve this particular crisis, what’s to stop Congressional Republicans from pulling the same trick in a couple weeks, when the debt limit rears its ugly head again? Perhaps it’s time the hostages turned the tables on the hostage-takers.