The Shutdown: The Last Thing We Need is a Government where Everyone Works Together

By: Ryan McMaken

The Chinese state’s “news” service Xinhua on Sunday mocked the United States for the current federal-government non-shutdown, called a “shutdown.” The Chinese agency claimed the current legislative stalemate — which has hardly “shut down” the federal government — demonstrates “chronic flaws” in the US federal political system. 

Even worse — from Xinua’s point of view — is that ” the spirit of non-cooperation across party lines” is the only aspect of the previous administration that has survived into the current one. A lack of continuity, it seems, is a problem for the Chinese ruling-party hack writing the piece, as he or she notes the current administration has “backtracked” on policies implemented by the previous one. 

In the mind of a Chinese propagandist, it seems, once the US government adopts a policy, that police ought never to be rescinded. To undo previously-supported policies, it seems, would be “chaos.” 

Unfortunately, this attitude reflects the ideas of many Americans themselves who like to condemn “gridlock” in Washington — which is greatly overstated, by the way — because it prevents the federal government from doing “the people’s business.” 

What exactly is “the people’s business,” of course, is never quite clear. Usually when people complain Congress isn’t doing the people’s business what they mean is “Congress isn’t implementing the policies I like in the way I like.” The people’s business, then, is really just code for “what I want.” 

Such an attitude assumes that any failure to come to an agreement in Washington must be due to bad people opposing the good people who only want good “common sense” government. 

Ignored is the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there are many people out there who honestly disagree over what constitutes “the people’s business” and that this is the source of the impasse. The legislator’s themselves have their own agenda’s of course, but many of them truly do fear facing a primary challenger or being voted out, and thus attempt to appease their constituents — at least the constituents who actually vote and express their views. 

Constituents in Biloxi, Mississippi are quite different from the Constituents in Brunswick, Maine, so that may have a little to do with a failure of all members of Congress to join hands and sing Kumbaya together. 

Nevertheless, anything short of everyone agreeing to proceeding full speed ahead with spending the taxpayers money ASAP is therefore denounced as dysfunction.

The Liberal Vision: Protecting Minorities by Restraining Government Action

This apparent chaos, however, is the way it’s supposed to work, but real political impasses are unfortunately, quite rare. 

The staffers at a Chinese propaganda mill can be forgiven for not understanding this. Americans, however, have fewer excuses. 

After all, even a fairly rudimentary review of the writings of both Federalist and Anti-Federalists of the late 18th century make it clear that the US’s federal government was to be subject to any number of vetoes and roadblocks designed to prevent too much activism on the part of the federal government. For the anti-Federalists, especially, “efficiency” was not the goal. The prevention of tyranny was. 

As Patrick Henry noted in 1788, a “splendid” government with many impressive, mighty, and efficient institutions is hardly something to applaud. Instead, a “simple” government that does little was the ideal. The new Constitution of Madison and his Federalists allies was for too streamlined and powerful for the likes of Henry, but even the Federalists were forced to concede that any government founded on the idea of quick implementation, efficiency, and ease in passing legislation was a recipe for abuse. Thus, Madison talked up his much-hyped system of “checks and balances.” These check and balances have proven to be far too weak, but there very existence contradicts the notion that the federal government is there to do “the people’s business” with minimal interruptions. 

The idea at work here is typical of the liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries: government with democratic elements will be controlled by the majority, and thus government must be also retrained from crushing the rights of minority groups. This is why early American government institutions often relied on a consensus model or on Constitutional models that provided various groups with vetoes. In some ways, veto power grew even stronger in some institutions, as with the growth of the filibuster as a tool in the Senate in the mid-19th century. The ability of the minority to prevent the passage of legislation was seen as a feature, not a bug. 

Franklin Roosevelt’s “Three-Horse Team” Analogy

In the United States, however, this idea was dying by the 1930s in the age of Franklin Roosevelt, when FDR popularized a new model in which good government is marked, not by roadblocks to action, but by forward motion. 

In a seminal 1937 fireside chat, Roosevelt told his audience:

Last Thursday I described the American form of Government as a three horse team provided by the Constitution to the American people so that their field might be plowed. The three horses are, of course, the three branches of government—the Congress, the Executive and the Courts. Two of the horses are pulling in unison today; the third is not. Those who have intimated that the President of the United States is trying to drive that team, overlook the simple fact that the President, as Chief Executive, is himself one of the three horses.

Roosevelt then goes on to repeat the usual bromides we are now so familiar with:

In its Preamble, the Constitution states that it was intended to form a more perfect Union and promote the general welfare; and the powers given to the Congress to carry out those purposes can be best described by saying that they were all the powers needed to meet each and every problem which then had a national character and which could not be met by merely local action.

But the framers went further. Having in mind that in succeeding generations many other problems then undreamed of would become national problems, they gave to the Congress the ample broad powers “to levy taxes . . . and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”

That, my friends, is what I honestly believe to have been the clear and underlying purpose of the patriots who wrote a Federal Constitution to create a National Government with national power, intended as they said, “to form a more perfect union for ourselves and our posterity.”

In other words, the purpose of a Constitution is not to construct sufficient veto power to various groups that might put a stop to government action. Now, under FDR’s model, the hallmark of good government is for everyone to “pull in unison” and to work together so that the “field might be plowed.” 

So, it’s not surprising now that when there’s a government “shutdown” — which is really just a temporary slowdown in government spending — it is somehow an affront to “good government” which is all about working together and “plowing the field.” 

Instead of insisting that the field get plowed, though, we ought to be asking ourselves if it’s the right field, or if someone else should be plowing the field, or if any fields ought to be plowed at all. 

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