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Dr. Lauermann, a Politics professor and the Assistant Dean of General Education and Common Learning, comments on the current government shutdown. Below is her explanation of the situation and her response to those who view either political party as tyrannical.

For other political scientists, my apologies, as this explanation is woefully oversimplified — one could write a book about it!

The current government situation is potentially more routine than would make most of us comfortable to think. When policy is passed, the legislation includes the substantive Robin Lauermannparticulars (what will the policy do and how will it do so). Congress must also pass appropriations to fund the legislation (since the human and physical capital to implement the policies require fund). Enter the annual funding cycle, which is the specific process which brings us to where we are.

Beginning in February the President provides a budget to the Congress for funding the next fiscal year. This power has been enshrined by law with the president for almost a century, because the predominant costs of government come from putting policies into force, secondarily the infrastructure to support the general operations of the three branches of government in their “representative” operations. The Office of Management and Budget, which reports to the President, coordinates the review of appropriations for the various agencies. Typically, the goal is to have agreement within Congress, passing the various packages of annual appropriations bills which continue to fund the government and approved policies, by June 30 to allow sufficient time before the start of the fiscal year, October 1. The government shut down on October 1 because one or more of these appropriations bills were not passed.

Thus the shutdown to government did not result from a proactive decision to close government, but rather the result of failing to take steps to pass funding for most of the appropriations bills (see THOMAS, Congressional records site, for information at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/approp/app14.html). Typically we have avoided similar outcomes in the past, save in recent memory for the 95 shutdown because, absent agreement on the larger budget bills, Congress can pass a continuing resolution (short or long term) to keep funding going until the larger agreements can be reached.

We are where we are because no continuing resolution has been passed. Furthermore, the process has become stymied because some legislators have decided to attach substantive policy concerns (what is law and what does it do) to a fiscal decision (is the law funded and at what level) because unicameral (single house) actions have not been successful.  Certainly there are always the potential for substantive impacts – if you drop spending, a law may not be as effectively enacted – but the messaging was that some members of Congress were going to use the reconciliation process to push for changes in the substantive policy. Whether their position on the policy is “right” or “valid” is the subject of a larger and less definitive conversation because it rests on competing values. However, it is not as common to create debate over whether an existing law, especially one of such scope as the Affordable Care Act, should stand or not via the fiscal process.

Some individuals have raised the contention of tyranny.  Certainly any one perspective refusing to negotiate might be considered tyranny, but because of the nature of our government, it becomes difficult to appropriately apportion blame (even though the public has no difficulty in doing so). Ben Franklin’s quote on treason is applicable here: “Treason is a charge invented by winners as an excuse for hanging the losers.” Treason, like tyranny is in the “eye of the beholder” and sometimes a convenient rhetorical argument. However, just as factions are “sown into the nature of man,” gridlock is sown into our institutional system.

Our system has separate branches which can be led by different groups (divided government). Furthermore, our bicameral system further creates opportunity for disagreement and logjams. Thus to pass, modify or repeal any policy, it requires both houses of Congress and the president (or in the case of a supermajority which can override presidential veto, just Congress).  Overall, the intention of the founders was that if actions could gain and maintain momentum through the larger process, we had less opportunity to make hasty and potentially poor decisions. From my perspective a good test of whether an action is tyranny (or at least ethically questionable) would be whether someone would support a particular political maneuver regardless of which side of the debate (s)he is on. Regardless, there is not a clear mandate among the larger public for anything more than resolving the shutdown (though a careful analysis of public opinion and elections may pose one viable argument, there is no clear and easy outcome on the substantive front to post in such a small forum here).

For a more in-depth, non-politically motivated, analysis I recommend “Revolving Gridlock: Politics and Policy from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush” by congressional experts David Brady and Craig Volden. http://www.westviewpress.com/book.php?isbn=9780813343204. Their work is not only carefully researched but reveals that gridlock is inherent to our system and not just a product of divided government – Jimmy Carter learned the hard way that the same party controlling all of the elective institutions of federal government does not pave the way for smooth policymaking.

Thank you, Dr. Lauermann, for your thorough explanation of the current government shutdown. We welcome comments that readers may have regarding our posts.