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Our Recurring Flirtation With Government Shutdowns Reveals a System in Crisis

Our dysfunctional political system uses the debt ceiling to inflict cruelty on the poor and the working class.

Cars drive past the U.S. Capitol during a vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government on September 30, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The threat of a U.S. government shutdown was averted late last Saturday night after the House passed a 45-day stopgap funding bill, which was then approved by the Senate and signed by President Joe Biden.

This is good news, because government shutdowns cause disruption to services and funding, affect millions of workers, and undermine public health and environmental safety.

Nonetheless, the manufactured crisis of the past few weeks may soon return because the bill is a short-term deal. The measure passed extends funding only until mid-November, and MAGA Republicans are bent on imposing their fiscal and policy views on the nation.

But it’s more than that.

The threat of a federal government shutdown is yet more proof that the U.S. is not a functioning country when it comes to politics and governance. How can federal funding run out in the wealthiest country in the world? There is hardly any other country in the world whose lawmakers have to struggle to find ways to keep the government afloat, and then just for the next 45 days.

Indeed, the U.S. has a long history of government shutdowns, mainly because of funding gaps, which can occur any time within a fiscal year. Ronald Reagan oversaw eight government shutdowns during his time in office, while the longest government shutdown, which lasted 34 full days, occurred during Donald Trump’s time in office.

Government shutdowns are truly unique to the U.S. In European parliamentary systems, government services don’t stop even when there is a government crisis. Trains run, garbage gets collected and water facilities are safeguarded no matter who is in power — and even when there is no government. The cases of Belgium, Italy and Portugal provide ample evidence to this fact. As a case in point, Belgium has gone without a government on quite a few occasions — and for very prolonged periods of time. Yet, government programs and services continued to function in a manner where Belgians could “see no difference.”

But most parliamentary systems in today’s world do not rely on anachronistic traditions and institutions. The Anti-Deficiency Act, which dates to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant in 1870 and was initially enacted in 1884, sought to ensure that the executive branch did not use trickery and “backdoor” spending to dilute the fact that the “power of the purse” is one of Congress’s main constitutional responsibilities. There was a long-standing concern with the executive branch creating coercive deficiencies, almost from the beginning of the nation. Congress needed the Anti-Deficiency Act in order to exercise control over how federal agencies spend money. Yet, the Anti-Deficiency Act did not consider the possibility of Congress failing to reach agreements over funding bills.

Even so, the Anti-Deficiency Act did not lead to government shutdowns. For many decades, the federal government and its various agencies would continue to operate even when funding bills were not passed. Federal funding gaps emerged with the passage of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, which formalized and constrained the congressional budgeting process.

The first government shutdown occurred in 1976 when President Gerald Ford vetoed a funding bill for the Department of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare. It lasted for 11 days. Budget gaps however began to trigger government shutdowns with rather regular frequency after President Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued two legal opinions in the early 1980s in which he argued that government operations must cease when there is a funding lapse. Civiletti’s 1981 opinion in particular, which led to an amendment of the Anti-Deficiency Act by amplifying on the emergencies exception for employing federal personnel, rested on a very narrow interpretation of the Anti-Deficiency Act. It claimed that the term “emergencies involving the safety of human life” does not include ongoing, regular function of government.

By imposing restrictions on the operation of government activities, the underlying argument behind the enactment of the Anti-Deficiency Act and the major amendments that occurred in the early 1980s was protecting democracy and preventing abuses of presidential power. But this argument is deceptive because the U.S. is not a full democracy and Congress itself became an enforcer of the imperial presidency. Indeed, since 1950, Congress has willfully abdicated its constitutional duty to authorize or declare war, allowing the executive branch in the process to make a mockery of the Constitution.

These laws and arguments were also made at a time when the ideas of neoliberalism were becoming hegemonic. Neoliberalism calls for austerity (reduced spending and increased frugality) in order to shrink the welfare state. In other words, it changes the role of the state by restraining the role of governments to address social problems and to respond to crises through budgetary action.

The U.S. political system … was designed to keep “popular rule,” which is the essence of democracy, at bay.

Spending laws in the U.S. are not about the enforcement of the “common good” since this is a vacuous term in the context of the nation’s political and economic system. According to Kishore Mahbubani, the U.S. is “a plutocracy, where society is governed of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent for the 1 percent,” and is now tinkering with fascism.

Even before Trump’s rise to power, in its annual rating of democracy in 167 countries, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index classified the United States as a “flawed democracy.”

The fact of the matter is that the U.S. political system was never intended to be democratic; on the contrary, it was designed to keep “popular rule,” which is the essence of democracy, at bay. A political candidate can be elected to become the president of the United States even while having lost the popular vote by millions of votes. Donald Trump claimed a “landslide victory” in 2016 even though he trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. Further, there isn’t even anything in the Constitution that grants citizens in the U.S. the right to choose their president.

So, what manner of a democracy is this which displays such blatant disregard of the “general will,” to use Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous phrase?

The Electoral College is not just an anachronism but a deeply anti-democratic method of selecting a president, which even the “father” of the Constitution himself, James Madison, had opposed.

The U.S. Senate is an even more anti-democratic institution than the Electoral College. Every state is awarded two members in the upper chamber. So Wyoming, the least populated state in the U.S., has the same number of senators as California, whose population is nearly 70 times larger.

And then there is the debt ceiling, which is not the same thing as a government shutdown, but it can affect a potential government shutdown.

The debt ceiling is the absolute amount of debt that the U.S. government is allowed to carry. It is allegedly there in order to keep the nation’s finances in order; in reality, however, it has nothing to do with debt reduction and is being increasingly used instead as a weapon against social programs.

The debt ceiling is nothing but a pretext to punish poor and working-class people by depriving them of basic human rights such as housing and proper health care coverage.

Denmark is the only other country in the world that limits borrowing on absolute terms, but, unlike in the U.S., the debt ceiling there is not being used as a weapon against democracy. In fact, there it is seen as “more of a formality.”

But Denmark has a multiparty system, a robust representative democracy and ranks consistently in the top 10 countries on the Social Capital Index, which is the sum of social stability and the well-being of the entire population. The plutocratic U.S., in contrast, with its “flawed” system of political governance, ranks 111th, just below economic superpower Nicaragua and above Ghana.

Having said that, what is simply amazing in government funding debates among lawmakers from both parties is that the anti-democratic nature of U.S. politics is never even brought to light. Nor is it of course an issue covered on mainstream media outlets. Indeed, if it wasn’t for radical activism, issues such as imperialism, the devastating influence of money in politics, gross inequalities, the climate crisis and environmental degradation, blatant racism, the disintegrating impact of neoliberalism on the social order and the surge of proto-fascism would most likely have been kept completely out of the public eye in the U.S.

It used to be said that history is on the side of the left simply because capitalism is capable of only heightening the contradictions that it generates.

Maybe so.

However, what should be beyond dispute is that any prospect of the U.S. becoming a democracy someday depends on strengthening those political voices and social forces willing to challenge the nation’s anachronistic and anti-democratic traditions and institutions. This is why we need a strong, unified political left in this country: a left unified on class struggle as the core basis for resistance to neoliberal capitalism and the primary axis for radical social change. Democracy should be extended into the economy and all people should have access to economic ease and security. We need a system of government that is responsive to people’s needs, not a system of governance that leads to frequent government shutdowns and uses the debt ceiling to inflict cruelty and pain on the poor and the working class.