When I sat down to write something about the government shutdown, I first thought I’d be going off on a rant regarding recalcitrant Republicans. However, while I do feel that invective has a time and place (and target), and while I am incredibly fed up with Washington at the moment, I think I’d actually rather try to ask you about some larger issues. Chiefly:
Does our system work?
This is a big question. And I hope that my raising it doesn’t make you think I believe the answer is no. But I’m trying to figure out what the hell got us to this point, and based on the current stalemate, logjam, shut down, slim down — whatever you want to call it — I’m not convinced the question doesn’t have merit.
I’ll work my way back to this. First, my take on current events, no questions asked:
- Government shutdown. Routine funding bill hijacked by Tea Party conservatives in order to attempt to defund a law which has passed the House, passed the Senate, been ruled constitutional by the SCOTUS, and — and! — has survived a popular vote referendum in the form of a presidential election. (Trying to make the fact that I really like the law irrelevant, but this admittedly colors my commentary.) Not sure I can fully blame the entire Republican caucus here, since many are on record as saying this tactic is, well, dumb. So I feel that a large portion of the blame falls to Speaker John Boehner, who refuses to allow a funding bill without the defund-Obamacare provision on the floor.
- Debt ceiling debate. Here, blame can be shared around a little more, since Boehner and other Republicans seem to be asking for just a general conversation about deficit reduction, and Obama is refusing to negotiate. (Again, I think I agree with Obama’s position that negotiating over what should be a routine vote to keep the government moving sets an awful precedent for the president — but it’s still a terrifying gamble.)
So, why are we here? How are we here? What is here, exactly?
What is easy: “here” is purgatory. We could be saved by a deal (or by crumbling resolve on one side or the other), or damned by inaction and obstinacy — and I do think that defaulting on the debt is a very, very bad thing, for us and for the rest of the world.
Why and how are harder. And right about now is where speculation about my original question — does our system work? — starts. Some musings about the root cause of this, for lack of a more applicable term, colossal clusterfuck:
- Congress’ approval rating is abysmal. At the same time, a staggering 90% of Congress was reelected in 2012. Why the dichotomy? I can think of a lot of reasons, though I’m not sure how many, or if any, are true. Americans distrust or even dislike faceless institutions, but connect with individuals, perhaps. The resources behind incumbent representatives and senators are enormous, definitely. Gerrymandered districts make it too easy for representatives to pander to their constituency, probably.
- Tied inextricably to gerrymandering is the basis of our democracy — the two-party system. Would gridlock dissolve with more parties represented (#bullmoose2016)? I’m not sure if total impasses like the current executive-legislative feud don’t exist in parliamentary countries, or if I just don’t follow other nations’ political news well enough to hear about these kinds of situations… Probably the latter. Having to form coalitions to govern seems, on the surface, like an easy way to encourage compromise, but it also runs the risk of those coalitions falling apart like old marzipan. And also leads to parties like the Piratenpartei Deutschland or the Israeli taxi driver coalition gaining seats in the legislature. So choose — government shutdown by insolvency? or intransigence?
- Also tied to gerrymandering and pandering is the length of a House member’s term. Two years in a world where the campaign cycle seems to last one year and nine moths doesn’t really leave much time for the governing they were elected to do. And it’s hard to go against the party — and, therefore, the purse’s — grain when you’re worried about raising enough money to compete so frequently. So instead we get reps who kowtow to their constituents and are hectored by their superiors. This is not to say that either obeying the will of the voters who elected you or following the strategy laid out by party leadership is inherently bad… but we’ve constructed a system in which extremes dictate policy. Districts are heavily imbalanced and vote frequently, leading to victorious candidates who heavily lean to one side of the discourse — candidates who must worry about fending off challenges from someone even more extreme in two years. It’s of note that only the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia have two year lower-house terms. Micronesia has a total population of around 101,000 people.
- But what about when these representatives can’t be herded by their superiors — and instead hold those superiors hostage? This, to me, is what seems to be happening to Boehner. I don’t think a majority of the Republican caucus wants to fight this current battle on shut down vs. Obamacare (though a majority may still want to defund the ACA some other way — I haven’t tried to count). But the vocal minority is enough that Boehner is worried about his job — worried that if he ignores Obamacare and carries on funding national parks, monuments, NASA, the FBI, etc. he’ll face a coup, organized by the minority in his own party.
- Now, why would Boehner put himself over his country? He’s an elected representative, dammit. But this is, I think, often a less selfless position than it could (should?) be. There’s a lot of ego in politics. There has to be in order to think you have a chance of winning an election. Unfortunately, ego sometimes seems like the only thing our elected officials share. I suppose it’s possible, too, that Boehner actually believes this current argument over Obamacare is what the people want, but it certainly seems to me like Boehner is beholden to his title and his ego rather than what’s best for the nation… or even his party.
- The flip side of this trillion-dollar coin is Senator Ted Cruz, who seems to have almost single-handedly goaded the House into this whole debacle — though this is probably just as apt as saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t stop it from drinking the entire goddamn lake. Cruz’s posturing and filibustering seem to me to be driven, again, by his ego and desire for higher office. He’s on many shortlists for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and could potentially be laying the groundwork for a run. Driving the country to bankruptcy is probably a pretty decent thing to have on your resume during an election.
- Is ego only a national phenomena? I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t follow California state politics well enough to know our crazies, but it seems more sensible than this lumbering temper tantrum we call a federal legislative branch. Are the people in state legislatures there because they care about issues and not TV face time? I do realize I’m generalizing about national politicians here, which is unfair — some of them are more dedicated to moving the nation forward and helping the people they represent than I am to, well, anything at this point. But there are enough who seem to think Congress is merely a way to hear themselves talk that I have to raise the question.
- Tangentially related to this issue of ego is the question of who, exactly, is serving in our government. One look at Rick Perry’s transcript tells us it’s not necessarily the best and brightest — the man got a C in P.E., for chrissakes. (A C! In P.E.! Rick Perry! Have you seen the guy? He has shoulders like an 80s power suit.) And while I understand that the nation can’t be run entirely by Stanford graduates (…or can it?), if I hear one more politician talking about dinosaur farts as a cause of climate change I may start frothing at the mouth. I think the lack of requirements to be elected to office in America is a beautiful thing (suck it, landed gentry), but it does occasionally lead to people like Michelle Bachmann. That being said, this is the point where I have to admit that Ted Cruz may very well be the best and the brightest, even if I vehemently disagree with him. And even if he doesn’t really act like it.
- Ted Cruz is not the norm, though. What can we do to encourage people like Cruz — those most qualified for public service — to step forward, instead of retreating to lucrative private sector jobs? I’m sure the looming threat of federal furloughs doesn’t help. Nor does the fear of being unable to enact change from inside an organization too paralyzed to even pay its debts.
- Side bar: split infinitives. Yea or nay? Maybe Congress should decide, but for what it’s worth I fall firmly on the yea side. I think they convey meaning in a different way than “too paralyzed even to pay its debts” does. I mean, imagine if the Enterprise‘s five-year mission was “to go boldly” where no man has gone before. Ew.
- Science fiction brings me to the topic of science funding, which — unsurprisingly — is shut down along with the majority of the federal government. (Don’t worry, though, the ISS is still running.) This in a week where six Americans share between them two Nobel prizes, won through research. Much of which was federally funded. …Yes, I realize this is an effect of gridlock and not a cause. Sorry. It’s still important.
So that’s my take. It is, undoubtedly, grossly simplified: we’re here — maybe? — because of gerrymandering, short terms, incumbency advantage, and a lack of altruists in Congress. Also it’s probably the lizard people’s fault, somehow.
I do feel like I need to mention that I friggin’ love the federal government — if I elected everyone, it’d probably be bigger (but also svelter, like a panther). Kvetching’s just in my nature. So I know I’ve offered no solutions here, and for that, I apologize. Solving is harder than criticizing, after all. And, to top it off, I think solving this will take large, institutional change.
Just the kind of change that Washington is really good at implementing.