“Closed due to government shutdown.” Those signs are seen outside many federal buildings, agencies and monuments today, the result of an impasse shining a bright light on the ongoing dysfunction in Washington.
Shuttering federal government isn’t new. Most remember the lengthy shutdown of 1995 when GOP leaders in Congress butted heads with President Bill Clinton. But the parties eventually came together to balance the federal budget and reform welfare. As bad as we thought our national polarization was then, it seems tame compared to the present form of gridlock.
The government hasn’t fully shut down; most of it still functions, more or less. Some services have been curtailed and workers furloughed — an inconvenience for some, a greater concern for many others.
The parks service even tried to bar World War II veterans from visiting the memorial built in their honor and soon learned the same lesson as their former Axis foes: Those soldiers, though now in their 80s and beyond, do not abandon their mission.
But beyond the images of padlocks on buildings and barricades at national parks is a greater crisis: Our political system is broken, with no easy fix in sight.
Who is to blame depends on where you stand. Democrats point the finger at Republicans for trying to undo a health care law that has been passed, signed and approved by the Supreme Court. In particular, they single out the tea party followers, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid referred to as “anarchists.” It’s a label its members may wear as a badge of honor, preferring a bit of anarchy to a massive and costly expansion of federal entitlements.
Republicans believe President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are stubbornly unwilling to negotiate a delay to portions of the health law that conservatives feel will be harmful to individuals and businesses.
And waiting beyond the health care stalemate is another crucial issue: Raising the debt ceiling. Stalling that effort could do serious damage to the economic recovery, which has been slow enough already.
The maneuvering by both sides is reminiscent of a game of checkers where each player has one piece left, chasing each other across the board and neither able to win.
How we got to this point isn’t hard to figure. Though we lament the unwillingness of our elected officials to find common ground, the way we vote discourages them from practicing such statesmanship.
The current standoff is symbolic of the nation itself. The increased diversity of our electorate along demographic lines, while making us a more complete nation in many ways, brings this complication. We are as divided as ever and our leaders reflect that chasm. Our interests, attitudes and expectations from government vary greatly, from north to south, east to west, black to white to Latino, old to young, male to female, urban to rural.
For example, while a single mother in the Bronx may expect government to provide a certain level of services, a small-business owner in Oklahoma wants the feds off his back and out of his pocket. This disparity in views then winds up being played out by their proxies in Washington.
Moreover, in an age when congressional districts have become more purely conservative or liberal across the country, representatives are afraid any hint of compromise will anger the faithful and spark a primary challenge from the right or left. So they toe the line and refuse to make even the slightest concessions.
There is a distinct difference between good government and good politics. Both sides today are increasingly more concerned with the latter than the former. Political victories are more important than solutions — better to keep the problem going so you can bludgeon the other side with it in a campaign.
And though Americans decry this head-butting nonsense that grips the Capitol, we keep sending the same people back into office year after year, often with only token opposition. We mixed this recipe and this is the dish we get, by electing leaders based more on ideological purity than intellect or competence.
With unwavering support for extremes at both ends of the political spectrum, we have created a climate in which those who can best govern aren’t likely to get elected, and those who can get elected aren’t able to govern best.
Leaders in Congress won’t unite for the good of the country if the people who elected them can’t do so. and right now, we can’t agree on what the good of the country really is. Until we do, we best strap ourselves in for a long haul of these endless sumo matches over public policy.
Sadly, at a time when we are facing some of the greatest challenges in our nation’s history — debt to deficits to war — we are more likely to see the government collapse than see it excel. The signs are there if we choose to read them and find a way to change the path we’re on.