By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
Being ensconced here on the West Coast, I didn’t have to wait up all night wondering whether or not the government would shut down. You know things were over around dinnertime in California and points west, when House Republicans decided to pass a resolution to move to a conference committee on the continuing resolution to fund the government. The Senate has tried 18 times over the past six months, ever since they passed a budget, to move to conference, and were denied each time. So the clear obviousness of this stunt meant I could stop taking bets on the outcome.
And yet, it must be said that there is a very clear, however cruel, logic to this shutdown, logic employed by members of both parties for decades. Dylan Matthews did us the favor of researching past government shutdowns, which were extremely regular for about 20 years, until the media successfully convinced the GOP that the 1996 shutdown cost them the Presidency (and not, er, Bob Dole’s campaign). The truth is that there were 17 government shutdowns from the initiation of the modern Congressional budget process in 1976 until 1996. Even after 1980, when rulings by Carter’s Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti mandated that government agencies receiving appropriations close down if funding ran out, government shutdowns occurred with disturbing regularity, with nine throughout the Reagan-Bush years, and two under Clinton. In fact, every time there has been divided government since the Ford Administration, the government has shut down at some point, with only one exception: the tenure of George W. Bush in 2007-2008. I would argue the reasons for that are:
1) The memory of the Gingrich shutdown and its impact on electoral politics remained in the rear-view mirror;
2) Democrats had thin majorities (only 51 Senators, and 233 members of Congress, a mere 15-vote margin) and enough Blue Dogs that the mainstream Democratic position, at least on budgetary issues, didn’t have a working majority;
3) Bush was a lame duck;
4) There was a little thing called the financial crisis occupying Congress’ time in 2008.
Other than that, this form has held, though the sample size is admittedly rather small. But before you, like many Democratic partisans, say “but everything’s changed, Democrats would never hold the government hostage over gun control,” consider the various policy reasons for government shutdowns over the past 37 years. There were four shutdowns over abortion funding in the 1970s, a Democratic-led shutdown over funding for the notorious MX missile in 1982, a Democratic-led shutdown over a Supreme Court civil rights ruling in 1984, a Democratic-led shutdown over expanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children (that’s welfare) in 1986, and a Democratic-led shutdown over aid to the Contras and the Fairness Doctrine(!) in 1987. So shutdowns were for quite a while part of the normal business of government. And as I said, there’s a cruel logic to them. When Congress and the White House are held by different parties, Congress has no bigger chip at their disposal than the power of the purse. So they use that, over and over again, to extract often unrelated policy concessions from the executive branch. It may have stopped for a while for various reasons, but it’s back because it’s a very inviting way for a Congressional majority to assert their will.
The other complaint I hear is “but Republicans lost the election!” That may be true – it’s even sort of true in the House, where Democratic candidates actually yielded more votes than Republicans – but as Ian Milhiser points out, House Republicans certainly believe that they were elected too, and divine the popular will accordingly:
In a Monday interview with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Chaffetz how he can continue to fight to block the Affordable Care Act when President Obama so recently ran for reelection on his health plan and won. Chaffetz’s response was straight out of Juan Linz: “I too won an election. You want me to just disregard all of my voters and all of the promises that I made and how I got elected? . . . . There’s got to be some respect that we too were elected, and the majority of the people that serve in the House of Representatives are Republicans.”
The common thread here is the peculiar system of government we have in the United States, which allows for a divided government where each side can lay claim to a popular mandate, and each side can also veto the other’s work to act on that mandate. This is simply not a problem in Parliamentary democracies, where a disagreement over budget priorities would lead to an election, not sending federal workers home. And then one party wins that election, and gets to implement their agenda, and after a while the public can decide whether they liked it or not, and vote accordingly, and allow for implementation of the next agenda. It’s very novel: democratic accountability.
As Yale political scientist Juan Linz explained in 1990, the chief executive in a presidential system has a “strong claim to democratic, even plebiscitarian, legitimacy” as the only national official elected by the nation as a whole, but an opposition-controlled legislature can also claim democratic legitimacy as the winners of their own elections.
“Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”
When the president and the legislature reach a truly unresolveable impasse, Linz warned that the end result is often quite ugly. “It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power.”
The problem, in short, is the nature of the Presidential system itself, and it’s one that serves elites quite nicely, by the way. Virtually all of the services that will go unfilled during this shutdown, for example, are services for the poor or near-poor. A sclerotic governing system empowers a status quo that is biased toward elites, who are often the only ones able to break the gridlock, when it suits them and their pocketbooks.
Consider also how the nature of the gridlock itself empowers elite goals in this case. Democratic pundits and allies have talked themselves blue about the doomed Speakership of John Boehner, the lunacy of Ted Cruz, and whether the Republican fever will break. Precious few words, by contrast, have been written about the fact that the SOLUTION here, the position that Democrats have been pushing, is a “clean” continuing resolution, which will enforce sequestration limits, a spending cap below societal need and economic demand, into Fiscal Year 2014. And while that would only hold for a couple months, anyone who thinks sequestration will somehow be cancelled (or even “replaced,” which does the economy next to no good from a macro standpoint) by the same people who just shut down the government over “defunding” Obamacare, which is by its nature mandatory spending and not defunded today, is nuts. But Democratic politicians benefit from the virtual silence about how the country is doomed to austerity spending caps for what could be an entire decade. And elites enjoy advantages from such a state of affairs as well.
So governing, not this government, is responsible for why your national parks are closed and your meat isn’t being inspected and the line is busy when you call the Social Security Administration today. It’s beyond time to transform this system of governing, which is completely unsuited to our political and policy of the moment.