Last week, both parties saw angry defections on the 2011 budget vote, citing all sorts of reasons. The defections by Republicans on the large budget threatened to throw Washington back into debate over an eighth temporary spending measure in a row, something the President threatened to veto. Luckily, they were able to compromise and Washington narrowly avoided a second shutdown.
Looking forward, Washington has two more hurdles to overcome: the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, and time is ticking. Congress has five months to debate the new budget and two weeks to raise the debt ceiling. The 2012 budget passed with a harsh party line vote, and Senate Democrats may kill the bill to create budget crisis number three. And now for crisis number four: the nasty partisan debt-ceiling debate is in full heat as deficit hawks play chicken with liberals. Conservatives want major concessions, and the left vows to fight budget cuts until the eleventh hour. Referring to these upcoming battles, House Speaker John Boehner predicts that “this process that we’re in is likely to be repeated a number of times this year.” Translation: shutdowns, defaults and angry politics are coming our way.
Sadly, Washington has a tendency to create public anxiety and political bitterness over very trivial matters. This month’s shutdown scare was over $38 billion in cuts — around one percent of the budget. This is not a serious debate: in the time that it took Congress to debate the cuts, Washington borrowed more money than what the cuts will save. Also, the cuts do not actually reduce spending — they merely slowed the growth in spending from five percent to four percent. Our federal government is the largest it has ever been this year. Washington is breaking records with the largest revenues, the largest spending and the largest deficits in our history. The cuts Republicans want seem so minuscule, yet so necessary given our situation. Bizarrely enough, not all agree, and the atmosphere in Washington has grown so hostile and partisan. Why? Because different Americans have radically different visions of what Washington should be.
Watching our slow motion-crash course to inflation and crisis, many say, “Government is broken.” International relations guru Fareed Zakaria argued this month that Washington has become too polarized and compromise will become nearly impossible. We see these differences play out through political gridlock on so many issues. Groups like public unions and the Tea Party are pulling our two big parties further and further apart because Americans now have completely different visions of our future. Our primary system in Washington kills off moderates and creates congresses that only understand party bashing and party loyalty, like our current one. Left and right do not get along these days. My view is that the ideological differences in America seem too large to be compartmentalized in Washington.
The left and right love to fight over the budget — this is why we’ve had shutdowns in the past, have shutdowns today, and will have more shutdowns in the future. Between Carter and Clinton, Washington shut down 17 times. Some shutdowns lasted well over two weeks and Americans were hurt badly. That was back when the budget was fine and shutdowns were easy to resolve; today we’re incurring deficits larger than we did during World War II. With the stakes so high, every bill in Washington will look more and more like civil war.
When Washington fails, shutdowns occur, millions of Americans hurt. One bad budget fight and we could have seniors starving and businesses shrinking. How have we let it come to this? How have tens of millions of Americans become so reliant on money steadily flowing from a precarious Capitol run by four hundred stubborn ideologues?
America has become reliant on Capitol Hill when there are 50 other capitols across this country that work well. They all pass budgets on time and they all balance their budgets by law. They also never let politics get in the way of keeping government services running for their people. The nastiest budget showdown, in Wis., never led to a shutdown. The sinking debt ships of Calif., N. Y. and N. J. all got their acts together. The impacts of a state shutdown are also much smaller, and our national security is not threatened when it happens.
Therefore, we should reconsider proposals that hand over more essential services to Washington, such as health care and education. Washington is too volatile to handle its many responsibilities, so maybe it’s time to hand some over to the states.