Love It or Hate It, Americans Still Want Government to do Its Job

We’ve avoided a government shutdown… for now. With the passing of an eleventh-hour continuing resolution, Congress managed to kick the can down the road until December 11.

This cycle of political brinksmanship – exacerbated by an uncompromising group of congressional bullies who dig their heels in for the sake of spectacle – seems to becoming a regular commodity in American politics.

Two years ago, the federal government shut down due to a divisive appropriations battle over the Affordable Care Act. For nearly two weeks, reports of furloughed federal employees, troubled international markets, and an impressively-sized dent in the favorability of the legislature filled our newsfeed.

Fast forward two years, and revived banter about another possible government shutdown – this time over Planned Parenthood – loomed.

Despite the rhetoric, government shutdowns are not the harbingers of the end times. More of a nuisance, a shutdown cannot completely immobilize the mechanisms of our country. Sure, there are a number of federal services that won’t be provided – trade permits can’t be processed, veteran disability claims can’t be reviewed, and home loans get delayed. But we somehow managed to survive in the interim.

Despite the rhetoric, government shutdowns are not the harbingers of the end times.
Jay Stooksberry
Some will argue that shutdowns cause significant harm to our economy. Estimates from the last shutdown placed the price tag as high as a $24 billion hit to the economy. Though any figure with a billion attached to certainly isn’t chump change, it only represents a tenth of a percentage point of our total economic production.

Aside from the 2013 shutdown, the United States experienced its fair share of shutdowns in the past. In fact, since the congressional budgeting process took effect in 1976, the United States has witnessed 17 different shutdowns. Judging by the fact that our way of living proceeded generally unscathed following these events, the stakes don’t seem very high.

Arguably, a shutdown that doesn’t cause an instant breakdown of civil society demonstrates the excessiveness of government in general. It’s similar to a tree falling in the woods: If a government agency disappears and nobody notices or cares, did that program really need to be funded in the first place?

The problem isn’t so much logistical or financial; it’s more about morale. Whether they support or oppose certain federal programs, Americans want their government to work. And they want it to work efficiently. Old timey truism – “if you’re going to do anything, do it right” – apply here.

The biggest problem posed by government shutdowns is the crisis of confidence it generates. Congressional gridlock does little to improve confidence in the American way of life for everyday voters.

The latest Rasmussen Report found that only nine percent (9%) of voters think Congress is doing their job well. Following the 2013 breakdown in budget negotiations, polls found that 8 out of 10 Americans disapproved of the shutdown.

And this sentiment was not unique to any political ideology or party. Registered Republicans and right-leaning independents – voters who normally support any mitigation or reprieve of federal overreach – disapproved of the shutdown by a 2-to-1 margin.

Shutdowns like the one in 2013 are the result of failure to achieve bipartisanship. Numerous congressional firebrands believe they received a mandate to uncompromisingly legislate their platform without reaching across the aisle.

Leading up to the 2013 shutdown, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz stated, “I don’t think what Washington needs is more compromise.” Two years later, Cruz and his compatriots were the leading forces behind this very same narrative over Planned Parenthood funding.

Political brinksmanship may make for interesting water cooler conversation, but it makes for a terrible model of governance.
American voters don’t share the same obstructionist spirit. Poll after poll after poll indicate that – despite such a polarized political environment – Americans would prefer that politicians play nice in the sandbox.

Political brinksmanship may make for interesting water cooler conversation, but it makes for a terrible model of governance.

The true test of governance will come in the next few months. The debt ceiling, the Export-Import Bank, and transportation funding are likely to be debated soon. Based on the polarizing nature of these topics and the timeliness of an election year, we can expect to be on the brink of another shutdown or sequestration in a few months.

Regardless of your opinion of the debt ceiling or Planned Parenthood, the bottom line is this: These continued political theatrics embody the fractured nature of governance in our political system. Love or hate the federal government, it still needs to do its job.

And when it comes to doing its job, the voting public needs to take note of who is contributing to this problem. If those who were accomplices to such disruption somehow still manage to hold the same office years afterwards, then what does that say about our culpability?

Rasmussen found that voters are often less critical of their own representative than they are of Congress as a whole. The first step to recovery is admitting that a problem exists in the first place.

Photo Credit: Felix Lipov / Shutterstock.com