Can the Shutdown Be Shut Down?

If you were planning to vacation in the Grand Canyon this week, maybe it’s time to consider a trip to Las Vegas instead.

With the government shut down, our national parks are closed (along with many other federal entities and agencies). The cause of the shutdown, of course, is a standoff between the White House and House Republicans. In an effort to undo the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, members of the conservative wing of the House GOP have refused to pass a budget unless it defunds or delays the law. Meanwhile, Democrats and the White House refuse to assent to that demand.

Both sides insist that important principles are at stake. Some Republicans say that stopping Obamacare is necessary in order to prevent irreparable harm from coming to the nation. Texas Governor Rick Perry has called the implementation of Obamacare “a criminal act” that “reaches to the point of being a felony” toward America’s young people, creating financial obligations they cannot meet. For President Barack Obama and his party, what is at stake is the basic integrity of the political process—as well as moving forward with a landmark law that promises to provide health coverage to the uninsured. Obama has accused Republicans of demanding a “ransom just for doing their jobs” on the budget and attempting “to hold the entire government hostage.”

Although this impasse is extraordinary in many respects, bitter standoffs do happen in the American political process. Peter Drucker considered them to be dangerous and difficult to resolve.

The American system of government, Drucker wrote in Men, Ideas, and Politics, typically operates on principles of “sectional and interest compromise.” But for this to work, adversaries need to scrap over the details of legislation—not be fundamentally at odds over whether the legislation should exist in the first place.

Image credit: Glyn Lowe
Image credit: Glyn Lowe

In nine cases out of 10 the refusal to acknowledge the existence of ideological conflicts is beneficial,” Drucker noted. “It prevents fights for power, or clashes of interests, from flaring into religious wars where irreconcilable principles collide.”

But sometimes, decisions really are about ideology. At such times, the veto power of the minority becomes a way to halt everything outright.

It was here that Drucker discerned a weakness in the American system. “No nation, however unlimited its resources, can have a very effective policy if its government is based on a principle that orders it to do nothing important except unanimously,” Drucker warned. “Congress can far too easily be high-pressured into emasculating a bill by the expedient of omitting its pertinent provisions.”

Do you think the government shutdown can be resolved quickly? If so, how?