If Congress does not pass a bill to fund the federal government by the end of next week, our government will shut down.
This should be a remarkable statement: how can the wealthiest nation in world history be on the verge of shutting down its most basic operations? Yet in fact, America in recent decades has stood frequently on the edge of shutdown -- and we sometimes have dived over the cliff.
In late 1995, the government shut down twice over disputes about funding for Medicare, education, and other programs. In early 2011, Tea Party members of Congress threatened to shut down the government before relenting at the last minute. Later in that same year, during the debt ceiling standoff, extremist lawmakers threatened to refuse to pay America's bills -- which would have had the practical effect of shutting down much of the government.
These repeated crises are not coincidental or accidental. They are the direct result of a radical theory that is strangling American politics: "governing by crisis." The notion seems to be that America is in need of immediate change -- and that, because Congress is ordinarily a deliberative and sometimes dysfunctional body, it enacts major changes only slowly or irregularly. To force action, lawmakers must, in essence, hold a gun to their own heads and threaten to pull the trigger. They must invent a crisis.
The problems with this approach are many -- beginning with the fact that government shutdowns cause immense pain. During a shutdown, the pay of U.S. troops could be put on hold, as would the pay of other critical public servants, including food safety inspectors, law enforcement officers, and more. Veterans' benefits could be delayed. Seniors' applications for Social Security likely will not be processed. Non-essential public workers would be involuntarily furloughed, damaging our economy and costing the public the benefit of their service.
Just as troubling, governing by crisis makes it nearly impossible to undertake those actions that have long-term implications, those things that are important but not easily expressed as an immediate crisis. And governing by crisis perverts the system of checks and balances that our founders so ingeniously designed centuries ago. The Founding Fathers' premise was that change in America should have broad support. In order for a proposal to become a law, it must be agreed to by the House, the Senate, and the White House.
That kind of broad-based consensus is difficult to build. Yet in today's complex world, it is easy enough for any one of these actors to threaten, through inaction on the budget or the debt ceiling, to bring the whole country tumbling down. By threatening such a crisis, that party can force policy changes and so usurp power that the Founders never intended for them to have. Right now, in fact, Tea Party Republicans are leveraging the threat of a shutdown to attempt to repeal the health reform law -- even though that law was written, debated, passed, and enacted the usual way, and Republicans failed on Election Day to gain the electoral mandate required to repeal it.
Further, governing by crisis damages the public's faith in our government's ability to accomplish good things. These constant crises are building a culture of distrust that needlessly deepens divisions between our political parties and between ordinary Americans.
Reminder: Health Insurance Options Workshop on September 30th
Are you a small business owner who has questions about what health reform means for your business? Would you like to know more about tax credits that could help you provide health insurance for your employees?
If so, please join my Small Business Health Insurance Options Program (SHOP) Workshop at 9 a.m. on Monday, September 30th at the East Brunswick Public Library, 2 Jean Walling Civic Center Drive in East Brunswick. Further details and information on how to RSVP are available online.
Celebrating Constitution Day
Every year on September 17, we celebrate Constitution Day, when 39 delegates from 12 state delegations gave this nation our greatest gift -- and what I call our greatest invention. This year, I had a chance to recognize the occasion with students at Middlesex County High School.
The Constitution is a remarkably durable document that has withstood the test of time and continues to serve as the foundation of our country. As we commemorate the signing of the document that guides and underpins our representative democracy, I am happy to send you a free, pocket-sized copy of the Constitution. I always carry one.
Member of Congress