Washington, D.C. is again in the grip of its long-running budgetary soap opera.
Episode 1, “Fiscal Cliffs,” was followed shortly by “Sequestration” and now “Government Shutdown.” Coming soon: “Debt Ceiling II.”
The American public is utterly fed up with this endless series. Each episode produces historic new lows of Congressional approval ratings — now scraping 5 percent.
None of the major actors is doing anything much to change this dismal trajectory. Republicans in Congress have backed themselves into a corner and shut down half the government because they still don’t like the Affordable Care Act — or perhaps they are just scared that voters might actually like it once it goes into effect (which, by the way, it will whether or not the government stays open).
Then there’s the feckless Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who embodies the old saw “tell me which way the crowd is running so I can lead them.” Then there is the detached and lawyerly President Barack Obama. After spending much of his first term in office passing the Affordable Care Act, the president has inexplicably delegated the task of explaining it to the public to late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel. [See below]
The shutdown has interrupted government’s day-to-day operations — delaying disability checks for veterans, turning away 700,000 tourists from the National Parks, interfering with vital clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, preventing the IRS from collecting taxes, furloughing hundreds of thousands of government workers — but it’s the lasting effects that are far more dangerous.
A large slice of the electorate has lost confidence in the federal government’s ability to take on any major societal problems. This underpins some of the opposition to Obamacare, which is seen as yet more mission creep by Uncle Sam. Unfortunately, the dysfunction at the national level reinforces the narrative that government can’t, in fact, do anything right. If Congress cannot even fulfill its main constitutional function and enact an annual appropriations bill, how can the federal government possibly be trusted to do a good job at providing health insurance for the public?
Even worse, this may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The executive branch is facing the retirement of many of its top experts, half of whom are baby boomers already eligible to step down. For many beleaguered federal employees, the chance to take retirement can’t come soon enough. According to the Partnership for Public Service, attrition has increased 35 percent since fiscal 2009, a loss of more than 455,000 full-time employees across the government, including scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, statisticians, accountants, law enforcement officials and other professionals. Despite the toxic working environment for its employees created by sequestration, shutdowns and uncertainty, the federal government needs to compete in the open marketplace and attract a whole new generation of talented civil servants. This will be an uphill battle. Recent surveys show that students are highly motivated by public service — but they want to serve in the non-profit sector, not the government.
The ongoing chaos is corrosive for democracy. In the “Federalist Papers,” Alexander Hamilton wrote that that good government required prestige and adequate compensation for the civil service, and a “steady administration.” He hoped that these principles would produce a virtuous cycle, in which public respect combined with a good salary would incentivize qualified people to enter public service, regardless of background. Their success in the public eye would help to draw even more gifted candidates, who would enable an effective, steady administration of the laws that in turn would help to maintain a continual stream of talent. Hamilton argued that without these features, the government would attract only “incapable honest men” who are unable to earn a living any other way — or “capable dishonest men” who would abuse their positions. With the Congress bogged down casting only symbolic votes, as government workers sit idle at home, and the White House scrambles to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debt, it is fair to say that we are some distance from the “steady administration” that Hamilton envisioned.
For most voters watching the mess from afar, the question is how to push the re-set button. While the Tea Party has garnered the media spotlight, there are new organizations that are rapidly gaining traction. “No Labels” a citizen movement founded by some of the biggest movers and shakers in Washington, aims to promote non-partisan collaboration. The group has attracted an eclectic mix of concerned and previously apolitical “citizen leaders” — ranging from Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Gilmour and former Comptroller General David Walker to various high school student leaders. “No Labels” effectively tapped into the national zeitgeist last year with its “No Budget, No Pay” campaign, which aimed to stop paychecks to members of Congress unless they passed a budget. President Obama signed a version of this bill last February, as part of the last debt ceiling increase agreement. “No Labels” is pushing for a stronger version.
The Bipartisan Policy Center, is a more traditional, less populist group. Founded by several former Senate Majority leaders, the core idea is to protect the distinctions within political parties while seeking compromise. Members are appalled by the collapse of polite public discourse. As Karen Hughes, the former senior advisor to President George W. Bush puts it, “No party has a monopoly on good ideas; we can all learn a great deal from each other while still upholding our own values. I [want to] improve the political process and to show the next generation of Americans that public service is indeed a noble endeavor.”
Americans are not alone in their disenchantment with government. Citizens in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and elsewhere have taken to the streets to protest against governments for failing to deliver popular priorities. The U.S. has been remarkably stable during its short history, but we should not underestimate the degree of public loathing for the current gridlock. All soap operas are melodramatic but it’s time to drop the curtain on this one.
- More Cognoscenti coverage of the shutdown
- Here & Now: Furloughed AmeriCorps Worker Protests Shutdown
- President Obama’s ‘It’s Good To Be The King’ Moment