Crisis-addled Washington careens toward the next debacle

Deep, systemic factors drive dysfunction in Washington while fundamental differences separate the parties

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives depart after a late-night vote on fiscal legislation to end the government shutdown, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, late Wednesday.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conceded defeat Wednesday, as the House of Representatives fell in line with the Senate in voting for a bill to avert a national debt default and end the 16-day government shutdown largely on terms laid down by President Barack Obama. The 11th hour deal momentarily allays worries about global economic calamity, though another unhappy reality lies ahead: The next crisis is, as always, only a few months away.

The bill signed by the president early Thursday morning does little to resolve the issues at hand for long. The legislation only funds the government through Jan. 15, a mere three months away, and raises the nation’s borrowing authority until February, at which point another debt ceiling battle looms. This time, House and Senate negotiators are also charged with with drawing up a detailed budget plan for the next decade by Dec. 13.

Such appears to be the new normal for governance in the United States — one self-imposed crisis following on the heels of another, with enormous consequences for the American people.

“We have raised real questions here and abroad about whether our system of government can work,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and executive director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “We are paralyzed by these unending conflicts and crises, so the government is not able to handle even routine matters.”

Theories range on how it has come to be this way.

Some analysts say the dysfunctional government is just a symptom of the gaping chasm that exists between the two major parties on questions as large as the appropriate role and scope of government.

“It keeps on repeating because the underlying disagreements between the two parties haven’t been resolved, and that’s because the disagreements are quite fundamental,” said William Galston, a former policy adviser to the Clinton administration and fellow of governance studies at the nonpartisan think tank the Brookings Institution. “The policies that one party believes will spur economic growth are precisely the policies that the other party believes will stunt growth.”

GRAPHIC: The politicization of the debt ceiling, in one chart

The apocalyptic deadlines in quick succession — for raising the debt ceiling, for funding government, for avoiding deep across-the-board cuts — are designed to break the impasse and soften the stances of Democrats and Republicans alike. But that tactic has proved ineffectual.

“They’re trying to light a fire for each chamber to have a reason to come to the table, but it’s not working,” said Joshua Huder, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “What we're seeing here is bicameral dysfunction.”

Others point to the rise of lawmakers within the GOP whose philosophy tends toward no-government rather than limited government — a minority for whom it is not beyond the pale to affix policy demands onto decisions to greenlight typically mundane functions of government. Making matters worse, these lawmakers are outside the control of mainstream party leaders.

“There are two political disputes going on simultaneously,” said Galston. “One is between Democrats and Republicans. The other is within the Republican Party. If we had two mass armies but a single front, that’s bad enough, but what we have is two armies and an insurrection in one.”

The irony is that such brinkmanship prevents either party from enacting broader policy fixes, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution who has long written about the rightward drift of the Republican Party.

“The problem with six week ‘fixes’ for government funding or debt ceiling increases is that they are not real solutions. They are the problem,” Mann and John Hudak, a fellow of governance studies, wrote last week. “They do not end political and economic hostage-taking. They simply provide a regular schedule of crises, and additional outlets for destructive demands from House Republicans.”

Still others note the systemic factors that are driving the increasing partisanship of lawmakers, from gerrymandering that creates safe congressional districts to the influx of big money in political campaigns that can fell an incumbent for not strictly hewing to the party line.

“We use political primaries to elect hard-liners who may not really be representative of their entire constituencies — people who are hard left or hard right who just don’t want compromise,” said Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. “They’re drawing an ideological line in the sand that’s created a different kind of legislator than we have had in the past.”

In addition, political leaders, like House Speaker John Boehner, see themselves as heads of their parties instead of heads of their respective legislative bodies, Edwards said.

What is the way out? Elected officials could come up with a political solution, with concessions from both, said Galston. Americans could get so sick of the brinkmanship that they deliver the Senate to the Republicans or the House to the Democrats in the next election, thereby unifying government.

A third option, Hamilton said, is if voters revolt and reinstitute the center in American politics, despite the fact that all the forces in politics seemingly tend toward extremism and partisanship.

“Voters cannot dodge responsibility here. They have brought us the people who have brought us gridlock,” he said. “My hope is the political center will emerge again, but it’s not a guarantee.”

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