LOS ANGELES, September 30, 2013 — Congress is deadlocked and the American people stand on the brink of a government shutdown. That will result in the furloughing of thousands of government workers, delay or eliminate construction contracts employing workers in the private sector, and hit both the American economy and our confidence in the federal government.
On the latter score it would be hard for things to be worse. The current debacle in Washington over whether to fund government operations, whether that means funding or not funding the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — continues of a pattern, a routine of dysfunction that over the last few years has become the new norm in governance.
Call it “governing by catastrophe,” because consensus and compromise are just too difficult. We saw it before in 2011 when Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless the president and Democrats made significant spending cuts to offset the increases in the federal deficit. The Republicans used the specter of a looming catastrophe — though some refused to take it seriously — to achieve a political aim.
And a worthy aim for which Senate Democrats do not seem to have much concern.
Did the ends justify the means? The Republicans succeeded in securing $900 billion in long term cuts, as well as a credit downgrade from Standard and Poors. This was insufficient in itself to push Republicans to relent, and so the president and the speaker of the House agreed upon a plan to constitute a so called “super committee” of Democrats and Republicans to come together and identify $1.2 trillion in additional long term cuts.
To ensure this, Congress passed and the president signed into law as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011 a trigger mechanism called “sequestration,” meaning automatic and across the boards spending cuts of $1.2 trillion meant to be so arbitrary, absurd and damaging that Congress would have no choice but to come together and make progress.
In other words, President Obama signed a potential catastrophe into law in order to achieve a political objective: raising the debt ceiling. It was a catastrophe that came to pass when the super committee proved less than super, and failed to identify the cuts needed to prevent sequestration.
This brings us to our current conundrum, the fight to fund the government and on whose terms. Republicans in congress want to defund Obamacare, believing that it will damage the American economy, expand the federal deficit, and ultimately raise the cost of insurance for most Americans.
But shutting down the federal government will itself prove costly and will not succeed in forcing Senate Democrats, much less Obama, to undue his signature legislation.
Republican hopes in this regard then are more political than practical. They hope that by sending a bill to the Senate that defunds Obamacare but keeps the federal government going, they can put Democrats on the defensive and position them to be blamed by the American people in the event of a shutdown when they reject the Republican bill.
It will not work. While the Democrats may have began this circle of acrimony by passing a healthcare bill the American people did not want, using questionable parliamentary procedures, they paid for it at the polls in the next election. Just as surely, Republicans will pay for forcing a government shutdown that the American people don’t want as a last ditch effort to stop a bill that, however controversial it may be, has already been passed.
The real problem with governing by catastrophe is the lack of legislative discipline that leads to these scenarios in the first place. We have a problem with healthcare. Democrats could have worked on a plan that would have had some appeal to both parties, in a way that would not have poisoned the dialogue in Washington.
They did not.
We have a problem with the deficit. Republicans might have worked on a fiscal plan that would have reformed the tax code in a way that would have been appealing to some Democrats and most Americans, and positioning themselves to exact greater restraint from the other side on spending. They did not do that until their leverage and choices were gone. Both sides are too concerned with winning to craft reasonable legislation, much less secure the goodwill of their colleagues to be able to do so going forward.
But that is the culture shift that will have to take place in Washington if our nation is to thrive.
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