The shutdown debate is a nasty one, naturally. Everyone tries to blame everyone else but themselves. The fact is everyone has some blame in this. Let’s break it down…
Senate / Congressional Democrats
The Senate majority (and their somewhat more impotent Democratic counterparts in the House) have two major areas of blame in this whole affair.
1) They’ve been acting outside the law with regards to budgeting. A common argument from the Left is that the spending has already been laid out, and it is irresponsible for the Republicans to withhold spending that has already been agreed upon.
This is false. The law dictates that the budget be reworked every year. The House and Senate are supposed to get together and pass a budget, and the President then signs it. This hasn’t happened since FY 2008, when Democrats ran both houses of Congress and President Bush was in the “lame duck” phase of his Presidency. When Democrats also controlled the White House in 2009, they decided not to do a budget, ostensibly assuming that it would have just been rubber-stamped, anyway. It also was subtly meant to set a precedent where “continuing resolutions” could be used in place of actual budgets.
This is not lawful, but it works fine if everyone actually agrees on what spending should be. However, after the 2010 electoral massacre, the Republicans were back in control of the House, and they insisted on following the law and passing a budget. The Senate decided to ignore the budget and say, “We just use continuing resolutions now,” and use media pressure to force the House to go along, which for the most part, they have. Each year since the Republicans took over the House, the House has lawfully passed a budget, and the Senate has unlawfully ignored this requirement.
The truth is that the Republicans have no obligation to go along with “agreed upon” spending, because there hasn’t been a budget that has been agreed upon by both the House and Senate. The House has been getting cranky about not having a say in how money is spent (a power which the Constitution grants them), and it’s hard to blame them for being upset about it.
2) They’re too concerned with their own power base, and show no interest in fixing the debt problem. I know that any liberals reading this are immediately scoffing that the Republicans are equally concerned with their power base, and this is quite true in many cases. There are a couple of major differences between the two parties with regards to this, though: 1) The media’s reaction to each side keeps Republicans more in check in that regard (see later in this post); and 2) While there are many Democrat voters who care about the country’s debt/deficit situation, the Democrats as a whole don’t have an internal constituency to keep them in line like the Republicans do with the Tea Party; in fact, the strongest Democrat constituencies are all demanding more handouts from the government. While some Republicans like pork barrel spending, they know that any time they think about it, they can picture Tea Partiers glaring at them and cracking their knuckles. Democrats have no such constraints. Since more people dependent on government means more power for Democrats, they happily go along with it.
That said, there are two areas where the general public is strongly opposed to the Democrats: the idea that we can continue to spend money we don’t have, and the inaccurately named “Affordable Care Act”, which the majority of people have been opposed to since the idea was conceived. To this point, the Democrats have shown that they have two plans to fix the debt problem: Plan A is, “Ignore it and hope it goes away” and when that fails, they go the Plan B, which is “Ignore harder!” (OK, some on the Left tried to advance the idea in 2010 that the “Affordable Care Act” would reduce the deficit because ten years of revenue was slightly more than six years of expenses. The reality of mathematics has since kicked in on that one.)
House / Congressional Republicans
Now, anyone who knows me realizes that in the core debate here, I take the same stance that the Republicans are currently taking. (The wording of that statement lends itself well to the Republicans’ major problems.) But this doesn’t mean that they haven’t screwed up pretty massively leading up to this as well.
1) The focus is too heavily on Obamacare, instead of the overall problem of the massive debt and deficit and lack of a budget. To be fair, I completely understand why Obamacare is the focus (more on this momentarily), but this whole campaign would be more effective if they would simply say something like, “We’ll authorize spending once a budget is passed like the law requires,” because the Democrats would have no honest answer for that sort of thing. The people want the deficits reduced, and they want their lawmakers to follow the laws that they write. If this was the stance, it might be an easy win despite the media pressure. But there’s one problem…
2) They spent the last decade destroying their own credibility as spending hawks. During the Bush years, programs such as “No Child Left Behind” and the Medicare prescription drug entitlement helped balloon the deficit, and had lots of opposition from Republican voters. (The wars certainly played a role as well, though the Republican base was generally on board with those. They didn’t lead to the internal divisions that have us where we are.) Also, anytime they tried to cut anything or change anything (like giving people more control over their Social Security, which the media and Democrats demagogued as “privatizing”), they immediately caved to media pressure to try to maintain the illusion of a “new tone” in Washington. Even in the early months after regaining the House in 2011, Republican voters demanded real cuts in budget negotiations, and ended up with cuts that would happen “down the road” that they rightly didn’t believe would actually happen. During debt ceiling negotiations, they passed “Cut, Cap and Balance”, which polls showed even 63% of Democrat voters approved of, but they caved to the Senate almost immediately when the Senate refused to even debate it.
This circles back around to point number one, because the reason they cannot use the more effective “we need a budget with cuts” strategy is that even their own voters won’t trust them on something that vague anymore. Obamacare, while a controversial topic, is something tangible and specific to focus on. Their own voters don’t trust them to try to do anything piecemeal, and the problem has gotten so out of control that something has to be done, so they’ve been forced to go for a “Hail Mary” instead of having other lower-risk options. Additionally, their history of caving to media pressure has led Democrats to expect that all they have to do to get their way is to wait until the pressure becomes too much to bear, much like a spoiled child with a weak-willed parent. Had they taken the “no funding without a budget” stance in 2011, they might have had more luck. Nothing will change until Republicans stand firm on something; it’s hard to say if this will be the issue that breaks the pattern, but no matter when that happens, trying to change that sort of behavior is painful for both sides and anyone caught in the middle.
President / Executive Branch
While there are a lot of things one could say about President Obama’s role in everything leading up to this, there’s one very specific point that is one of the biggest causes of the current rift: Everything the President and the executive branch have done since the start of this issue has made the statement, “I view this as a political game.” Even worse, he does it extremely ineptly.
When the President says, “I will not negotiate with [Speaker of the House] John Boehner,” while simultaneously working with a Communist dictator in Russia and offering to negotiate with the latest puppet for the Iranian regime, it sends the unmistakable message that he views Republicans as a greater evil than Communists and Islamo-fascists. While the fringe of his base might agree with that, it’s a really lousy message to send to the general public, especially since he was elected on the premise of being a “uniter”.
Furthermore, he has done a great deal to undermine any argument in support of the health care law by granting waivers to it (unconstitutionally, I might add) to basically everyone except the average working American. The Constitution states that we are all supposed to be equal under the law, but Obama’s waivers directly violate that. And if the new law is supposed to be so great, how come so many (including Congress) want to avoid it? Why would he let them?
Then you have the obvious (and inept) attempts at political theater that are an insult to the intelligence of anyone who takes a moment to think about them. The First Lady’s Twitter account noted that due to the shutdown, updates would be limited. So the First Lady can’t tweet because of the shutdown? Seriously? I’ve composed a few tweets now and then without a government grant, as has everyone on Twitter. Then you have the closing of open-air monuments that require no staff. What point does that serve? Obama hopes that the media will blame Republicans (and naturally, they do), but it is so ham-handed and transparent that the strategy is backfiring.
Of course, we can blame the politicians all we want, but there’s an ever bigger elephant in the room that requires its share of blame…
When our Founding Fathers came up with the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment and “freedom of the press” was a very important concept. As long as we had a watchdog media that would keep our government and its representatives in line, and give the people an honest assessment of what their leaders were doing, people could use that knowledge to make informed decisions about who would lead them.
However, freedom of the press becomes useless when the vast majority of the press takes a side. Most honest people who follow politics agree that the vast majority of the media (save for Fox and talk radio) leans liberal, though most people who only casually follow the news don’t have any idea of that. Democrats know this and use this knowledge to their advantage; while Republicans are often split on whether to try to get the media to be nice to them (see John McCain) or to fight the media (see Ted Cruz).
I believe that our Founding Fathers would have envisioned a media that would take to task lawmakers who exempt themselves from their own laws or who unconstitutionally pick and choose who laws apply to, or lawmakers who don’t think laws about writing budgets annually apply to them. Our media is great at this when Republicans are in charge, of course, but not so much with Democrats, which is why the Democrat party is in the state it is in. If the Republicans are the weak-willed parent who can’t bring themselves to stand up to the spoiled child, the media is the enabling parent who continually tells the spoiled child that everything he does is right, which only further encourages the bad behavior. So when some outside force (like the Tea Party) gets just enough power to be heard, the reactions from the people being told they can’t just do what they want anymore border on violent.
Speaking of the people, though…
We The People
The truth is that all of us have a role in this, too. We as a country have let this happen by not paying attention and not doing enough.
As a country, we still tend to have one news show that we watch or one newspaper we read, we don’t pay attention to elections unless it’s a Presidential year, and we complain about government, but don’t actually do anything about it. We want government to cut things, unless it’s something that directly affects us, an attitude which taken as s country collectively makes any cut off-limits. A lot of people think voting is enough or is all we can do, and others think we are powerless altogether. But we aren’t.
The rise of the Tea Party resulted in a lot of people paying attention to the primaries for the first time. Republican politicians who were in the game for power instead of doing what their voters wanted found themselves on the street. In some cases, it hurt the Republicans (Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, for example), but it also netted them Ted Cruz, Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley and others, and it sent the message that Republicans can’t just ignore their base. When we pay attention, make clear arguments, and make clear that there are consequences to doing the wrong actions, the right actions result.
The problem, naturally, is that it isn’t easy. We are inclined to assume that someone else will solve the problems that face us. We hope that one person will come in, wipe the table clean in one swift motion, and say that things are going to change around here. Many people believed Obama would be that guy in 2008, but it has become clear that he was very much a false prophet. Likewise, many believed that the 2010 election would send a clear message to Washington, but it didn’t. These are not problems that are going to be solved by one person or in one year. The decay was slow, and the recovery will be as well. It won’t happen at all, though, if we just sit and watch.