The Nullification of Edwin Meese

(Edwin Meese | Source: ZUMA)

The shutdown is ending badly for the Republicans and especially the Tea Party. The attempt to hijack and take the government hostage will end with a “so you get nothing, you lose, good day, sir!

It must come as a real blow to Jenny Beth Martin, the leader of the highly influential (in Republican primaries, at least) Tea Party Patriots group. She claimed the shutdown was the true will of the people. Her words: “the majority of Americans do not want to live under Obamacare. The shutdown is giving those people the chance to speak to Congress.”

The shutdown of the government was the brainchild of Ronald Reagan’s disgraced former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who hatched the idea that the House of Representatives has near absolute power to change or even “nullify” Obamacare.

Given the 2012 election results, that may sound deluded, yet Martin and other Tea Party leaders haven’t forgotten those results, nor are she and other Tea Party leaders using polling numbers to make that claim.

Martin and other Tea Party leaders actually claim that, under the Constitution, the House of Representatives is charged as the “sole voice” of the people of America. In Martin’s words:

The American people also voted for a Republican majority in the House yet the president and his allies want us to believe that those elections are of no consequence. They could not be more wrong … The House does have the power of the purse for a reason—it’s members are the duly elected representatives of the people. The people oppose this law.

This should surprise nobody: The New York Times, among others, documented how the House shutdown had its origins just days after Obama’s second inauguration.

Led by the Conservative Action Project, which was then headed by Ronald Reagan’s disgraced ex-Attorney General Edwin Meese, all the major Tea Party PACs and grassroots groups formulated an “action plan” to defund and delay the Affordable Care Act, hoping for repeal after 2017.

This long-term repeal plan was based on the upgraded concept of “nullification.” This is not the “nullification” we were taught in history class, or the plan promoted by slave-holding states that they should be able to “nullify” federal laws they didn’t like (ultimately, the pro-nullifiers lead to the actual succession that plunged the nation into Civil War).

Rather, Meese’s neo-nullification scheme uses the constitutional description of the House (i.e. the body “elected by the people”) and combines it with the House’s “powers of the purse” to justify claiming that the Lower Chamber has near absolute power to change or even “nullify” laws.

And, working largely unnoticed by mainstream media, the neo-nullification plan would become dogma to the Tea Party caucus. In August, North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows sent Speaker John Boehner a manifesto, signed by 80 Republican House members, calling for repeal of Obamacare through the “power of the purse.” In their letter, this caucus, representing a third of the House membership, used Meese’s declaration of “unique House powers” to justify their actions:

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that the “power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon … for obtaining a redress of every grievance …” We look forward to collaborating to defund one of the largest grievances in our time.

Yet the whole neo-nullification idea was delusional from the start.

First, even Tea Party leaders admitted they couldn’t repeal Obamacare before 2017, but in fundraising appeals and other communication to their grass roots, they downplayed or even ignored that problem, leaving supporters to believe repeal was possible overnight.

Second, the Constitution only gives the House primary—not full—powers of the purse, meaning the Senate and President themselves could end the neo-nullification movement before it could start.

Third, and most shamefully, two-thirds of the Republicans in the House, most of the Senate Republicans and much of the GOP mainstream knew about these plans, knew that neo-nullification was practical or Constitutional, knew they were setting impossible expectations for success for their base voters and yet, the majority didn’t have the guts to tell the Tea Party “no!”

Nine days ago, Rep. Pete Session of Texas declared the House Republicans would keep the shutdown going for months never surrendering because “We’re not French!”

As you’d expect after this unconditional surrender—excuse me, Reddition Inconditionlle—of the House leadership, Tea Party anger is white hot: Rush Limbaugh calls Republicans irrelevant, Ted Cruz and Tea Party members accuse Republican moderates of selling them out while they were on the brink of victory and grassroots Tea Party leaders are calling for heads of Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Most ominously for the Republican Party, leading Tea Party strategist Erick Erickson has declared the movement needs to “burn bridges to build new ones” and they should do all they can to defeat any Republican in Congress who votes to end the shutdown.

And if Erickson’s right, Republicans face a real reckoning from their ranks.


Peter Lindstrom is a political consultant and researcher. He lives in Washington, D.C.