Why Did The Government Shutdown? The Answer Isn't What You Think


Day two. As I write we are in the second day of having a shut-down federal government. (Or a partially shut down federal government, if one wants to think of “full government shutdown” a situation in which D.C. would not have police or firefighters, federal prisons would have no guards, and the military would not be standing at the ready.) 

Two vitally important questions come to mind in the midst of this utter insanity. Why are we here and how can we get out? The latter seems like the easiest to answer — it is just a matter of the petulant children who occupy one of our nation’s most beautiful buildings getting together and deciding that they should, in fact, do their jobs. The former question has received a great deal of ink over the last few weeks but still seems unresolved. In reading these pieces I have noticed a troubling trend among those writing on the “why” question. Ian Millhiser at Think Progress and Alex Pareene at Salon have each written incredibly informative pieces (here and here) on the responsibility of our presidential constitution in this mess. This “Blame the Constitution Caucus” misses an important point. By academically blaming the Constitution, we worry about something that isn’t going anywhere and partially absolves the idiots in power.

In general, the research and arguments that created this “caucus” come from Juan Linz, a Yale political scientist and a founding father of comparative constitutional study. In 1990, Linz wrote a piece called “The Perils of Presidentialism” that describes the inherent tension in presidential systems, which arises from independent elections of executives and legislatures. In a divided government each party has a claim to popular legitimacy based on their own electoral victory. In this case, the House Republicans claim popular legitimacy from their elections (despite receiving considerably fewer votes than Democrats in House elections in 2012) while President Obama and the Senate Democrats claim popular legitimacy based on their own electoral successes. This leads to (at least electorally) defensible and intransigent stands by both sides.

Millhiser and Pareene elaborate on this proposition by discussing the death of the American moderate consensus and how that has led to the breakdown. When American moderates run things on both sides, extremism is rooted out and agreement can be found. This moderate consensus seems to be gone as we are as polarized as we haven't been since the mid-1800s — a time when a good portion of the country literally didn’t want to be a part of the country any more. Pareene also goes on to point out the fact that individual House members from safe, ultraconservative districts are actually acting rationally, and that shutting down the government is the only way for them to avoid a primary challenge from the right.

But does anyone really think the system is going anywhere? Is there a single rational thinking person out there who thinks that this government shutdown (or the upcoming fight on whether the government should pay for things it has already bought, also known as the debt ceiling) is going to be what causes the world’s most powerful country to say “we’ve ridden this presidential thing for long enough”? The government can’t manage to fund itself, so imagine the craziness that even a single high-profile call for constitutional convention would create. Screams of “anti-American” and “doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism” would echo across cable news faster than a royal birth. It seems more likely that a few of the idiots responsible for this self-inflicted catastrophe could be tossed out in a year, than that the country decides to scrap of the whole American constitutional system. After all, people were pissed off when they found out that the shutdown meant they couldn’t visit the Constitution in the National Archives.

The “why” question is multi-layered and complex. There are tremendous flaws to our constitutional system. As both Millhiser and Pareene point out, it allows for the creation of safe seats and allows for the representatives of 18% of the population to hold the government hostage (Pareene actually has a great laundry list of the undemocratic elements of our constitutional system, in case anyone needs a brief lesson). Every two years we go to the polls and we elect folks, asking them to represent our interests. We also ask them to act like grownups. The constitutional issues are important, but they are not going anywhere. Blaming the constitutional system that gets them elected is an academic exercise. Lay the blame where it belongs, on the morons running things. Maybe then in a year we can work to elect non-morons.