Government shutdown: Is American political systems working?

A Quinnipiac University poll found that 58 percent of those polled blame both parties equally for the gridlock, while 28 percent blame Republicans and just 10 percent blame Democrats.


1. Is this really definitely “the new normal” in D.C. that Dems. and Reps. simply can not agree on anything or maybe is it not so dramatic? What is your opinion?

2. I do not want to go into some blame game, but whom to blame? Should we blame also the American political system as such, how check and balances work or maybe better to say do not work?


Steven GreeneAssociate Professor of Political Science, North Carolina State University

1. Yes, this is the new normal. But what’s new is not that “Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on anything,” but that a single element of a single party, that is the Tea Party branch of the Republican Party, completely disdains compromise and is preventing anything from getting done. As few as 25 Tea Party members of the 435 member US House are the one’s essentially dictating policy for the Republican Party. In our system of government, there simply has to be compromise for things to work, but when one party will not compromise, it is impossible to get things done. In a genuine negotiation or compromise, both sides give and both sides get something. In this case, the Tea Party is basically holding the US government hostage—give us what we want or the government closes (followed by give us what we want, or the US defaults on its debt). There’s no effort to reach any kind of genuine compromise.

2. No, honestly, there needs to be blame here. The Republican Party, especially, the Tea Party are genuinely at fault here. This is pretty much historically unprecedented. You’ve got a minority of one party in one house in one branch of government that is threatening to bring the US government to a standstill if it does not get its way. It is honestly entirely unrealistic to expect the Democrats to simply give up on the health care plan that was duly passed into law several years ago. Many Republican politicians and pundits have agreed on this point. Any reporting that takes a “both sides” approach is fundamentally mis-representing the issue.

We can blame the American political system, but it has been able to function well enough for the most part until now. What’s changed is not our system, but the fact that one party has realized that if it has no respect for customs and norms (and little concern for damage to the American economy) that they may have a better chance of getting their way.

And finally, Republican legislators are much more concerned about losing a primary election to hold onto their seat than a general election to a Democratic challenger. Districts have been drawn (gerrymandered as we say) so that in most seats one party has a very clear advantage in the general election. This encourages Republicans to take far right stands with little fear of political damage. The dynamic is simply not the same on the Democratic side.

Thomas ScottoReader in Government, University of Essex

1.In the past two decades, Congress has become more ideologically polarized, and this is particularly true of the House of Representatives. Gerrymandering (the politicised drawing of constituency boundaries) has made many districts quite ideologically homogeneous. Rather than having to fight for moderate voters, many representatives are in “safe seats” where the voters are on one ideological extreme or the other.

2. This is a form of brinkmanship that was tried by the Republicans in Congress after they took over both Houses in 1995-1996. They suffered by playing this game, and helped Clinton’s re-election in 1996. I don’t think the wider American public will view this favourably or the Republican’s actions favourably. This may not hurt the Republicans in the House because of gerrymandering, but if I were a 2014 Republican candidate for Senate, I might be very nervous.

Robert Busby, Senior Lecturer in Politics, Liverpool Hope University

1. The shutdown is not common, as it is the first in almost 20 years. The core issue this time is clearly the partisan division between the two chambers, and only one budget can come from the Congress so they must agree on it. Even though Obama is not directly part of the process the Republicans are using his health care as the prime target where they want modifications. As a consequence this is partly about money and partly about an effort to inflict damage, or at least forestall the progress of health care reform. A further issue is the problem of the debt ceiling that will have to be addressed later this month. With limited financial options both Republicans and Democrats are trying to make the most of their opportunities before there is a further change to the American economy.

2. The system is clearly part of the problem. The only way out of the stalemate is for a compromise to be reached. One will be found but it will take time and the American system of government is not a speedy or efficient one. A second problem is that the partisan split between the chambers, while perhaps beneficial in that it aids in finding a middle ground on policy, lends itself towards intra-branch conflict. With the Senate and White House in Democratic hands this really is the only area of the federal government where the Republicans can make a stand, and they are intent on forcing the issue. There is also the issue of health care. It is such a thorny subject in America that Republicans have latched onto it as the no.1 target. All of the presidential candidates for the Republicans had pledged to repeal it if elected and without a stand against it now, it would make it ever harder to reform or eradicate when fully in place.

David McCuanAssistant Professor of Political Science, Sonoma State University

1. This shutdown is just the latest development in a game of broken politics that has been the basic theme of the American political system for the last several decades. Save a few episodes, such as the brief period after the tragic events of 9/11, for most of the past two decades, there has been a slow erosion of collegiality, decorum, and respect across the aisle among all in the nation’s capital.

With this erosion of civility and compromise has come a loss of effective governance. What remains strong is our ability to run for office – what we call electioneering. We are really good at running for office. What remains troublesome and has continued to erode is what we call governance. And this shutdown is just the latest episode in a long running and bad Reality TV show. We have become really bad at actually running the government once we are elected.

2. The moderates are gone and so the factions in Congress are the ones that control the conversation and the lack of direction or movement here on many issues, including funding appropriations for the next fiscal year of the US Government and moving the debt limit.

So, as we’ve moved to this impasse and shutdown while also moving closer to the debt limit, everyone on both sides of the aisle has moved to their respective corners. This has led to a lack of common ground and as a result – a shutdown.

Finally, this could be a watershed moment for American politics – this has the potential to be a turning point into a new low for civic life in the U.S. This shutdown, combined with no movement on the debt limit by the middle of October (around 17 October) could affect politics far beyond the 2014 midterm elections next year and into the 2016 presidential election cycle.

Robert Y. ShapiroProfessor, Political Science, Columbia University

1. This is a new political environment has emerged with ideological polarization in Congress–now reaching the point that the Republicans will block budgets to run the government.

2. The blame lies with the Republicans more than the Democrats. The system of separate institutions sharing power in this kind of checks and balances system, has not had this kind of problem in the past. It has always been a potential problem in theory, but this has been unlike any other divided government we have had.

Philip Davies, Professor, The Eccles Centre for American Studies, The British Library

Shutdowns in US federal government are rare, but not unique.  Checks & balances were designed to produce moderation and negotiation, but they have the potential to lead to stalemate.  At times this in itself has contributed to further negotiation and compromise as those involved recognise they have got as close to the brink as they can get in pursuing their points or promoting their issues – they may be playing a longer game, persuading the electorate to think again about an issue that has slipped down the political agenda, creating the impression that the other side in the argument are irresponsible and should be unseated in the next elections… .

That having been said, the ‘harmonious system of mutual frustration’ that is checks & balances does appear to be going through a period when its edges are sharper, and its battle lines more firmly drawn.  Up until the late 1960s US electoral history had seen periods where the balance of party competition swung relatively comfortable between the parties.  The Reps had dominance in all branches for a while (with brief periods of more complex party division of power), then the Democrats had similar dominance.  The parties themselves each covered quite a wide political spectrum, and it made sense for more conservative Democrats and more progressive Republicans sometimes to co-operate to get things done (they had some things in common, and they could get results even if they were in the party with less political clout at the time).  This has changed in the past political generation.  Since 1968 about three-quarters of federal elections have resulted different parties controlling different chambers or branches of government.  Both party leaderships have striven hard to take their party back to overall dominance, and the election battles have become increasingly bitter (and, with expanding political finance, increasingly ubiquitous).  Simultaneously the party leaderships have become increasingly hard-nosed in gerrymandering – drawing constituency boundaries to strengthen their party’s chance of victory and increasingly isolating the other party’s followers together in other constituencies.  The result of that has been the growth in the number of constituencies where the majority of the active voting population are strongly in favour of a single party.  In that case the primary election, to nominate the candidate of the majority party, becomes tantamount to the general election, but is effectively a battle between levels of extremity in the dominant party — and turnout in these primary elections is small, dominated by the most motivated (and often the most extreme) voters.  Consequently one has seen growth in the number of strongly ideological officeholders within a structure that was really built on the assumption that people of varying opinions would be able to negotiate with each other to the best advantage of their fellow citizens.  Conservative elements of the Republican Party appear to have particularly successful at using the current situation to maximise their influence – so that even moderate Republicans are concerned that if they are seen as too friendly to their political opponents, the more conservative (and well-funded) elements within their own party may attempt to unseat them in a forthcoming primary.

So, over recent decades the party battle lines have hardened,  The range of opinion with the party office holders seems to have narrowed.  My sense is that this is more true of the Republicans, but I have no doubt that Republicans would accuse Democrats of becoming more hard-line ‘left wing’, so I suppose those opinions do rather depend on where you are standing when you look at them.

What appears to have happened this time is a kind of ‘perfect storm’.  The more conservative Republicans genuinely believe that President Obama’s health care reforms are a wedge of neo-socialism threatening American core beliefs as to the relationship between government and its people.  Other Republicans are not so convinced, but they do realise that in health care they have an issue about which the US public is both concerned and unsure what its concerns are (is the cost, is it the coverage, is it the excellence, is it the availability????), and are not convinced of the virtue of any set of reforms.  The actions of some employers in reducing working hours in order to relieve themselves of health care obligations under the new legislation has increased this uncertainty precisely for those at marginal wage levels and least likely to have reliable health care support.  Given that Obama’s health insurance exchanges came into operation on precisely the same day that the government shutdown was forced, it gives the Republicans the perfect opportunity to grandstand.

It remains to be seen whether this Is a successful gambit.  Previous shutdowns have been over an array of matters – negotiation has continued until both sides have been able to declare victory and withdraw – face has been saved on both sides at least to some extent.  This time it does seem that someone has to be seen to back down.  The Democrat position is that health care was passed properly through the system, that a presidential election since then has re-elected the initiator of that legislation, and that it is unreasonable to hold the whole of government operations to ransom to force a delay and possible reversal of one policy issue that has been decided and is in the process of application.  The Republicans ignore that claim of imbalance and just argue that they are willing to talk with the Democrats, but the Democrats spurn them — in fact of course the Republicans are only willing to talk about ways forward that eh Democrats have already rejected as unreasonable.

If the public see this as the Democrats’/President’s fault, then the Republicans are playing hard ball politics, but to their advantage.  If the public see this as Republican spoiler tactics, then there is potential advantage to the Democrats.  In one year’s time the mid-term elections will take place.  The Republicans should do well.  They have another real chance of taking Senate, and they could increase their majority in the House.  Mid-term elections generally have a low turnout (about 40%) and the demographics of the mid-term electorate is often more advantageous to Republicans than the demographic of presidential year electorates.  Also second term incumbency midterms are historically very poor for the presidential party – throughout US history the presidential party has almost always lost seats in these elections.  So, at a time when we have read so much about the demographic trend of the US electorate steadily disadvantaging the Republicans, the Republicans actually have a very good chance of improving their position in the 2014 elections, and of setting themselves up for a very strong challenge for the presidency and both chambers of Congress in 2016!  If their actions at the moment strengthen this position, the Tea Party and its fellow-travellers will be seen as political seers.  If their actions subvert their party’s long term goals, there may be serisou internal repercussions.



One Response

  1. I believe the U.S. has already defaulted … even with the debt ceiling deal being worked out.

    The best way to look at this, I think, is that there’s a spectrum of default severities. At one end, you have the outright repudiation of sovereign debt, a la Ecuador in 2008; at the other end, you have the sequester, which involves telling a large number of government employees that the resources which were promised them will not, in fact, arrive.

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