On Friday, the U.S. government narrowly avoided shutting itself down, coming to a consensus on a national budget just shy of the midnight deadline. While the Obama administration praised Congress’ stop-gap measure as being exemplary of bipartisanship, nothing could be further from the truth.
In the midst of waging three wars overseas, one of the harshest recessions in U.S. history and overwhelming unemployment, a near-shutdown underscores the absence of bipartisanship more than anything.
Our system of two-party politics has become so divisive, so fiercely combative, that compromise across the aisle has become the exception rather than the rule. A step in any direction from either party to bridge the gap is pounced upon by the other. If you are in support of teachers’ unions, for example, you must hate students. If you favor healthcare reform, you must be anti-Medicare, anti-Medicaid and anti-doctor.
The common response from the public in reaction to a deadlocked Congress is to simply do away with the bad apples. In other words: it is not Congress that is to blame, it is the politicians we’ve elected to it. But this attitude fails to recognize that the problem originates not in our representatives and senators, but in our very institutions.
Divided government is not a problem exclusive to the Obama administration. In fact, the butting of heads between the presidency and Congress extends as far back as the Kennedy era, deadlocking then on domestic issues such as Medicare, federal aid to education and civil rights. Since then, there has not been a presidency that has not had to combat Congress at some point during its administration.
The problem is split-ticket voting. In the United States, voters are allowed to cast separate votes for members of Congress and the president. Additionally, voters are allowed to vote more frequently on members of Congress — one-third of Congress’ senators every two years, the entire House every other year — than on who is president. Add to that the development of high expectations we put upon the presidency, coupled with the disappointment of not being immediately gratified.
The result: two years for a president to not only solve the nation’s problems but produce noticeable and indisputable results as well. That, or we put the other guys in Congress. We are an impatient, insatiable lot.
Split-ticket voting is not a problem in the Westminster parliamentary system. We would not see a government shutdown, for example, in Britain, where a vote of no confidence can undo a legislative body locked in disagreement. Under this system, voters entrust a legislative body to appoint their executive, as opposed to letting the populace do so.
Not even in other presidential systems, such as in Latin America, are there typically provisions for a complete government shutdown. In 2008, Brazil’s government services continued operating despite Congress’ rejection of a budget proposed by the Brazilian president.
Unlike Brazil, the United States has gone out of its way to work failure into its political infrastructure. It is only through the 1884 Anti-Deficiency Act that the United States binds itself to shutting down when Congress fails to appropriate funds. When the government spends more time squabbling than doing its job, we all face the consequences.
Naturally, this has not been the first time the United States has seen a government shutdown, either. Since 1980, we’ve seen the government shut down five times, the last being in 1995. The threat of a government shutdown will only become more and more precarious as the federal government becomes more involved with everything — imagine, for example, our soldiers’ paychecks frozen mid-conflict and a centralized healthcare system closed off to the public.
Our political system has turned the displacement and furlough of hundreds of thousands of government employees and services into a negotiating tactic — one at gunpoint, for that matter.
Change, a value once plastered across so many red and blue Obama campaign posters across America, is what’s needed now in governance. Bipartisanship is not something that can simply be asked for. In politics, “out of the goodness of one’s heart” is either sarcasm, a fantasy or a lie. Be it an institutional, electoral or policy change, without the incentivizing bipartisanship, the nation will run itself into ruin.Truly, “only in America.”