Notes for foreigners on US shutdown

04/10/2013 § 3 Comments

Most site hits here are not from the US. As an ex-pat, I feel a duty to explain the current ‘shutdown’ of the US government to my guests.

‘What in the world is going on?!’ I hear you cry. ‘We thought only Italy did this sort of thing.’

Sadly, no.

There are two explanations you need. The first is procedural, the second is political.

The procedural explanation is actually straightforward. The whole thing is legal, in keeping with the Constitution. The US is not a parliamentary system, so the President can be from a different party than the one that controls the Congress. In addition, the Congress is bicameral (two ‘rooms’ or houses: ‘bi-‘ + ‘camera’). The House of Representatives is larger and has two-year terms. It is considered the most responsive to popular sentiment — lots of members (smaller constituencies) and shorter terms. The Senate is smaller, and Senators have six-year terms. It is thought to be more august and deliberative (paralleling the UK House of Lords). Different parties can control the two houses. Currently, the Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the Senate (and have the Presidency).

Under the Constitution, spending bills must start in the House. The idea is that, since it is the people’s money, the people’s representatives should have first say. After that (very long story short), bills have to be approved by the Senate and the President. They will have their own ideas about what the spending bill should say. The Senate can work in committee with the House to create a compromise version. The President essentially can only vote up or down on whatever bill he receives.

The current shutdown, procedurally, is simply that the Republican House is proposing a spending bill that neither the Democratic Senate nor Democratic President will approve. Because they cannot agree, no funding has been approved for this fiscal year (starting 1 October). No money, no government.

That explanation, though, is entirely unsatisfactory, because it doesn’t have the frisson of politics. That’s where the action is. It helps to understand a few things:

  • Both parties are fractured. Both parties have different groups representing different interests, often at odds with each other.
  • Both parties primarily represent business interests. They represent different business groups, who have different agendas. Because only the two main parties have any real power, all the other interests are somehow incorporated into them: labour, Green, libertarian, etc.
  • Democrats tend more toward labour and environmental interests. Under the New Democrats (Clinton(s) and Obama), these interests must be placated enough to keep them from getting in the way of business. For examples, see Obama’s throwing of Elizabeth Warren under a bus, and the Clinton/Obama healthcare reforms that maintain industry structure and profit while still leaving millions uninsured.
  • Republicans tend more toward laissez-faire economics and social conservatism. Since Reagan, the strategy has been to fire up a base of social conservatives (the Christian right), then do as little as possible to keep them placated while advancing an agenda of big business power. This strategy has involved ‘wedge’ issues (that is, being divisive), including God, gays, guns and abortion. Republicans also controlled the last redrawing of Congressional districts, and they resorted to the time-honored tradition of gerrymandering. Although they are the minority party, they have leveraged their smaller vote count into a powerful position.

The current stalemate is the result of two forces. First, the Democrats have moved more and more towards supporting business interests. Obama represents the policies of Republicans of 20 years ago. The Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) is basically the same as a proposal by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Massachusetts plan instituted by Romney before he was the Republican candidate for President. The more the Democrats move in that direction (‘triangulate’ in Clinton terms), the more Republicans need to move even further in conservative and/or libertarian directions. The political centre moves with them.

The second, related force is the split in the Republican party. It used to be that the Christian conservatives and small-government advocates were ‘useful idiots’. They helped get Republicans elected but didn’t drive policy. Reagan and Bush I raised taxes. Reagan, Bush I and Bush II all presided over expansions of government power and spending. They didn’t adhere to the principles they espoused.

But they have been doing this schtick for over 30 years. A whole generation of voters has been raised on the rhetoric and didn’t know it was a con. Add to them the social conservatives who want to keep privilege for themselves (‘Segregation forever!’). Then add in a few more low-information types (‘Keep government out of Medicare!’). In the last couple of elections, these voters have been successful at sending just enough contrarians and culture warriors to the House to create a voting block big enough to say ‘No!’ That is splitting the Republicans between the True Believers and those in the business of business, and the TBs currently have the upper hand.

The rhetoric also contributes to a view amongst some of these voters that the current government is illegitimate: it doesn’t represent the ‘real’ America and must be opposed.

Keep in mind, though, that even the TBs in the House don’t believe what they say they believe. This is obvious as the shutdown takes effect. For example, these same people who won’t fund the government went down to the WWII memorial in a public park to make a PR stunt of helping a group of veterans get in. They are also more than happy to have the Capitol police on duty — unpaid! — today. They have kept on the flight controllers and the border guards. They don’t want a government shutdown. They just want to dictate which parts of government operate and which ones don’t.

This point circles back to the trouble with Democrats. They keep letting Republicans off the hook for their rhetoric and never call them to account. The Democrats do this because fundamentally they want something similar: smaller government via smaller social programmes.

And that’s really why we have the shutdown. The Democrats want something and can’t quite admit it, and the Republicans don’t really want what they say they want. So they’ve bumbled into a barfight, circling each other in displays of aggression and keeping the rest of us from just enjoying a night at the pub.

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