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Column: Debt ceiling, government shutdown: what is the future of American democracy?

The world breathed a collective sigh of relief when an eleventh hour deal ended the US government shutdown – but it only fully funds the government until January, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AFTER COMING PERILOUSLY close to causing “a massive disruption the world over” – in the words of International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde – US congressional leaders struck a deal at the 11th hour this past week to end the 16-day long partial government shutdown and to raise the debt ceiling (i.e., how much money the US can borrow).  Lagarde’s view was widely shared by business and political leaders around the world.  Like all of us ordinary citizens, none of them could imagine the consequences of the world’s largest economy suddenly having no/limited access to money.

While the world may now breathe a collective sigh of relief, the truth is that the deal only fully funds the government until January 15th and lifts the debt limit until February 7th of next year.  The “kicking the can down the road” metaphor has been overused at this stage, but it is apt.

Congressional Republicans are the big losers

Politically, the most recent data shows that congressional Republicans are the big losers, with nearly 80% of the American people holding them responsible for what has transpired.  Those “Tea Partiers” who would not fully fund government operations and who have questioned whether the debt ceiling really matters seem possessed by their hatred for President Obama and by their vehement opposition to the health care reform package he got through Congress and successfully stood for re-election on. 162 of them – 144 in the US House of Representatives and 18 in the US Senate – actually voted against the deal to avert an unprecedented calamity for their country.  That is a disgrace.

On the flip side, however, there is the sad fact that the US debt now exceeds $17 trillion.  This astonishing and ever-ballooning figure can be attributed, in significant part, to increasingly unsustainable spending on entitlement programmes, such as Social Security and Medicare, that leftist Democrats stubbornly refuse to reckon with.

So unless congressional leaders in both parties respond to President Obama’s plea and adopt a “new approach” to dealing with the national debt in the next few months, a similar ugly drama might again unfold early next year.

And unfortunately, it is ugly dramas that the rest of the world has grown accustomed to when following events in Washington, DC.  Gridlock, corruption and money are three words that so many people outside the US say come to their minds when they think about American politics.  This leads some to make harsh assumptions about the country’s electorate and to conclude that American democracy is broken beyond repair.  In my view, they are wrong on both fronts; yet there is no question that there are very serious problems on Capitol Hill in 2013.

Paucity of moderate voices

Perhaps the most vexing of these is a paucity of moderate voices in the two parties.  In the past, there were sizable factions of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats – otherwise known as moderates.  Now, it doesn’t take much more than the fingers on two hands to count their number in the House of Representatives and Senate.  Instead, both sides of the aisle, especially the Republican side, are dominated by individuals who are convinced that they are always right and that those who take a different view are always wrong.

It is exceedingly difficult to work constructively when this is the case.  In the past, those in the middle were sufficiently numerous that they could blunt the absolutists on their right and left and forge compromise.  Even today, the small band of remaining moderates like Republican Senator Susan Collins and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor are being widely credited with getting the deal done on the government shutdown and debt ceiling.

How is it that American politics has come to be dominated by those on the ideological poles?  One factor is certainly the very powerful interest groups on the left and right who play a larger than ever, grossly disproportionate role in the primary contests each party holds to select its general election candidates.  The nationwide networks and extraordinary financial resources these groups have cultivated and can bring to bear mean that the candidates who most stridently toe the line on “their” issues have a pronounced advantage in primaries.

A second, related factor is congressional redistricting.  In 34 out of 50 states, state legislatures have the power to reconfigure more than 2/3 of the 435 districts that comprise the House of Representatives and typically do so in a partisan fashion.  The result has been that there are relatively few competitive districts.  Most are either reliably Republican or Democrat.  As such, to win elections, a large majority of congressional candidates must run to the hard right or to the hard left, depending on the district.  In particular, in the safe Republican districts, candidates, once elected, cannot be seen to cooperate with the other side, on anything, or they may face an intra-party challenger in the next primary who will likely have received substantial funding from outside interest groups.

The future of American democracy?

This is not to say that American politics used to be a bastion of civility or equity.  Government shutdowns have happened before.  The place of money has always been too prominent.  But this past week, 162 members of the current Congress brazenly voted to put the future of America and Americans in real jeopardy.  That is very different.

Not even big business interests could persuade these Republicans to ensure temporary stability.  They are a new breed of Republicans whose constituents are disproportionately poor and struggling, but who vote for them because of their similar views on cultural issues and because they are desperately worried about the future of their country for a myriad of good reasons.  These Americans care little about the global economy because it has already left them behind.  This emerging base of support for the Tea Party engenders a complicated and incongruous new political dynamic that is very worrying and is a further impediment to getting more moderates elected to Congress.

All this said, I can see why outside observers are so down on American democracy.  I am too at the moment.  I can’t give up though, especially when I read the words one long time Capitol Hill observer wrote after this past week’s vote: “after all the fighting, all the battling of left and right in this country, we’re in this thing together.  In the end what matters is the system of self-government itself.  It’s what gives us the chance to make things better.”  Here’s hoping the US Congress eventually hears and heeds these eternally prescient words.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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