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A culture of dysfunction: is Washington headed for Groundhog Day?

The US debt crisis is over for now, but legislators have just kicked the can down the road. In this series on the US debt ceiling, academics from Australia, the UK and the US assess the lingering global…

A house divided: the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis may be over, but partisan gridlock has brought politics in Washington to a standstill. EPA/Michael Reynolds

The US debt crisis is over for now, but legislators have just kicked the can down the road. In this series on the US debt ceiling, academics from Australia, the UK and the US assess the lingering global implications.


The dysfunctions of Washington were on full display earlier this month as America’s shuttered government careened toward default. Both the shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis ended on October 16, but the dysfunction? That’s here to stay.

It’s here to stay, because despite the major losses Republicans suffered this month, their goals haven’t changed. The Republican Party continues to believe it is better to have no government than to allow the current government to function. And without extensive reform, there are plenty of ways for them to fulfil that goal.

Don’t expect it to take the form of another default crisis or government shutdown, though. At least not any time soon. The Republicans’ recent defeat has – for the moment – given leverage to members of the party who opposed the shutdown. Besides, shutdowns and debt ceiling crises are off-year tactics, due to their negative effect on polls. There’s a reason the last one was in 2011, not 2012.

But that is little comfort for those who would like to see the US get on with the business of governing. When it comes to obstructionism, the Republican Party has proven where there’s a will, there’s a way. And there is plenty of Republican will, particularly for the central issue of cutting the federal budget.

Despite the health care detour that defined the recent debacle, the principle fight has always been about the budget. It is a fight that, though they control only one half of the legislature, Republicans have been winning.

Budgets are made up of revenue and spending. In the most simplistic terms, Democrats want to increase revenue and Republicans want to decrease spending. The Democrats have repeatedly moved to compromise: raise more revenue through tax increases and reform, and we’ll agree to cut spending.

Slash spending, actually: president Obama’s 2013 budget planned to shrink discretionary spending to 4.9% of GDP in ten years. For comparison, in 2008, discretionary spending (for things like education, research, nutritional support, and infrastructure) was 7.9% of GDP.

The Democratic compromise has run aground on the shoals of Republican anti-tax orthodoxy. Eight times since 2010 the two parties have assembled budget commissions; eight times they have failed to come up with a budget. Nor do the Democrats have any leverage to make the Republicans meet them halfway.

Part of this is because of a deal the Democrats made in 2011 known as sequestration. Sequestration is an austerity program comprised solely of spending cuts.

Democrats agreed to this cuts-only program for two reasons. First, the cuts sliced deeply into the military budget, making them anathema to Republicans. Second, sequestration was never supposed to happen. It was devised as a sword of Damocles dangling over both sides to get them to come to a deal.

But in believing military funding meant more to Republicans than their opposition to taxes, Democrats miscalculated. The Republican Party has embraced sequester, demonstrating there is little on their agenda that they will not sacrifice in order to keep taxes from going up.

With the second round of sequestration about to kick in – delivering even deeper spending cuts – Democrats are on the back foot. So much for their October victories.

Ultimately, as economics wonk Ezra Klein has argued, Democrats are going to have to fight on ground other than taxation, which means capitulating (and thus ratifying) the Republican dogma on taxes. Klein argues:

At this point, the Republican opposition to taxes has nothing to do with policy. It has nothing to do with the economy. It’s religion. It’s dogma. It’s identity. Refusing to raise taxes is what it means to be a Republican in this day and age.

This is how a minority manoeuvres to take the reins of power from the majority.

It is not, however, how the US political system was designed to work. Republicans have transformed the tools of compromise and deliberation into wrecking balls. The infrastructure of American governance was built on a foundation of republican virtue: the belief that, at the end of the day, officeholders agreed that government should function and the nation should not be harmed.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s refusal to bring a vote on bipartisan immigration reform legislation highlights Washington’s dysfunction. EPA/Michael Reynolds

The debt ceiling worked for 94 years because politicians never threatened to breach it. Senators managed for centuries to use the filibuster without grinding the Senate to a halt because it was considered a rare, not rote, form of protest.

This is not to make an idol out of compromise. Compromise kept Congress from taking up black civil rights for over eight decades. It kept slavery legal in the United States for seventy years following the ratification of the Constitution.

But the US needs a functioning government, one that does more than bounce from crisis to self-inflicted crisis. Two sets of reforms would help ease (though not end) crisis-governance.

Filibuster reform, the more likely of the two, would uncork the Senate bottleneck. Yet it is more likely to pass in part because it doesn’t involve the most problematic part of the federal government, the Republican-controlled House. Even when the Senate manages to pass legislation, as it did in June when it won bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform, House Speaker John Boehner refuses to bring the bills to the floor for a vote.

Automating the debt ceiling and continuing resolutions would also move the government onto more solid footing by taking away the threats of default and shutdowns. Republicans, however, would be loathe to give up the leverage those confer.

Ultimately, the answer rests with voters in districts represented by obstructionists. Until these voters punish obstructionism at the polls, Republican politicians will continue to practice it with abandon. Defaults and shutdowns may not be the means, but deadlock and dysfunction will be the ends.


This is the fourth part in our series. Read the other parts below.

US debt crisis heralds the return of the Tea Party

Obamacare can’t make sense in a divided economy

US economic policy: the right settings, disastrous process