We should stop criticizing government shutdowns and start thinking about what the shutdowns tell us.
Our government inflicts us with pain all the time. The recent government shutdown is the most accessible example of such pain. This kind of discomfort is so repulsive because it happens without our consent, which leads us to mistrust the responsiveness of our American government. And for good reason:
In a shutdown, well over 800,000 non-essential federal employees don’t know when they’ll receive their next paycheck. In turn, the rest of us are left to deal with life under a temporarily incompetent, unresponsive federal government. A lot of uncomfortable stuff happens and the government doesn’t seem to care.
We think situations like these shouldn’t happen in America. If a government is by the people and for the people, as Lincoln pointed out, the people should never be angry about what the government does. It should people-please; yet the vast majority of people aren’t pleased with government shutdowns.
Why do shutdowns like this happen in America?
A shutdown happens when Congress cannot agree on a budget before the start of the new fiscal year. The Constitution and the law do not punish the government if it inconveniences the people with a shutdown. Instead, Congressmen, as essential employees, still get paid. And they are still given the responsibility to pass the budget.
The idea is, in a representative government, the representatives do not need legal punishment. The ballot box is the Congressional cattle-prod. All Congressmen, unless considering retirement, want to keep their jobs: they either enjoy the distinction that comes with it or want to continue their good influence in Congress. Sure, legislators must respond well to organized interests who have lots of money, but at the end of the day, the right votes, not the right number of dollars, keeps someone in office. The one sure way to keep their jobs is to pay attention to the input, opinions, and demands of their constituents. A representative who does not have one eye in Washington and the other in his district is sure to jeopardize his seat. So, they need no legal repercussions; we as voters also serve as the punishers.
This accountability mechanism, termed the ‘electoral incentive,’ means that if the representative does stuff in office that his voters disapprove of, it will show in the next election — with his unemployment. With this in mind, the budget deadlock we just witnessed shows that some Congressmen held to the deep-seated conviction that a shutdown is better than its alternative (in this case, ObamaCare fully-funded), risking their seats in the process.
Does a shutdown like the one we just experienced successfully prevent its alternative?
Americans surely don’t think so: they tend to blame those on the other side for the pain they feel. They ignore the risky signaling that’s taking place, and consider partisan actions that eventually force a shutdown rash, imprudent, and hopeless.
Americans in general agree that Congress was most to blame during the shutdown, which lessens Congress’ power to be successful. Shutdown polls declare that the people blamed Republicans rather than Democrats and President Obama. But notice that the polls tend to lump President Obama and Democrats into one category, which does not account for the consistently higher approval ratings of the President with respect to Congress. In the end, Congress, not the president, will seem even more blameworthy.
With success falling out of sight, what were Republicans in Congress thinking by forcing a shutdown? What response were they trying to invoke?
All government shutdowns anticipate pain and anger, but they communicate gravity. A shutdown communicates that the alternative is a more painful than itself. If we feel pains, we should assume something significant is happening.
Even further, In light of the fact that the Republican Party forced a similar government shutdown in 1995, when conditions were better, and had to deal with heavy repercussions, it is safe to assume that Republicans are definitely risking similarly punishing outcomes. They have communicated a grave issue indeed.
Perhaps the gravity of the situation ran deeper than funding or defunding ObamaCare. Perhaps they feared that such a law will instill dangerous ideas about the nature and purpose of health insurance. Or, beyond health insurance, they feared that the law will feed the growing appetite for entitlements and instantaneous gratification that threatens the generous and selfless side of today’s America.
Must we merely complain about our pain? No. We should listen to the problem the pain communicates. Look beyond the discomfort to its source; then consider why the cause is weighty enough to inflict the pain you feel.
In American government, pain is not weakness leaving the body. The pain leaving the legislative body (and coming down to us) signals graver, more threatening, weaknesses in ourselves and our nation.