David Adler: What happens if shutdowns are acceptable?

October 17, 2013 

Political brinkmanship in Washington has generated disbelief across the nation and throughout the world that the U.S. government could become so dysfunctional. Citizens have drawn parallels to Nero fiddling while Rome burns. China has asked what a “de-Americanized world” would look like. Instead of leading, House Republicans sing “Amazing Grace.” Baffled Americans will be forgiven if they wonder whether Robert Redford’s new film, “All is Lost,” an epic story of survival at sea, is a metaphor for our failure of governance.

“Republicans have to understand we have lost this battle,” GOP Sen. John McCain said of efforts of his colleagues to defund the Affordable Care Act. “We would not be able to win because we were demanding something that was not achievable.”

Analysis of the partisan politics and self-interested maneuvering that drove the government shutdown and placed the nation on the precipice of default will vary in the months and years ahead. As narratives go, there is merit in the explanation that what began as an effort to strip funding from Obamacare, the president’s signature achievement, had devolved into an effort to deny lawmakers and their staff members subsidies for their health care coverage.

Behind that narrative, of course, lay the great philosophical and, it should be said, historical debate about the role and purposes of government. That debate in the United States is all Broadway, all the time. But the shutdown was about tactics and strategy.

What happens to our political system if and when a governmental shutdown becomes an acceptable tactic? The implications are uncertain, but certainly ponderable, and they are not at all wholesome.

There is, immediately, consideration of whether the emphatic opposition of the tea party members of the GOP to Obamacare and their subsequent “success” in halting the operations of government will be rewarded or punished.

The early guess is that their constituents, principally those in the safe electoral districts that sent them to Washington, will urge them on, exalting the considerable influence they wielded in the House Republican caucus.

There seems little likelihood they will be “punished,” since GOP moderates lack a willing leader with the power and backbone to condemn and punish their tactics. Those who might do so would risk retaliation in the form of a primary opponent which, given members’ penchant for retaining their seats, is incentive to hold their tongues.

If that scenario pans out, then Americans should not expect to find in Congress, anytime soon, a legislature that is little better than dysfunctional.

If the citizenry’s needs are not met by Congress, might they be met by the president? Power, it is said, abhors a vacuum. For many years, political scientists have recognized the wisdom of the teaching that presidents, eager to meet the expectations of the public, will aggrandize power — for the sake of their own political standing and what they perceive to be the interests and welfare of the nation.

Few presidents will resist the assumption of power necessary to serve their own political and electoral interests, which helps to explain executive usurpation of foreign affairs powers. With an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, and an American public whose needs are unmet, would it be surprising to see greater growth in the executive branch?

The implications of this debt ceiling crisis — at home and abroad — will be debated, as they should be, by Americans concerned about the capacity of the government to govern. We would do well to remember Theodore Roosevelt’s sage observation that “politics is not a spectator’s sport.”

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service