In just a few hours the United States government is likely to enter its 18th partial shutdown since 1977. As we wait to see if there will be a last minute deal to avoid what has for days seemed inevitable, many people are asking two questions. How did we get to this point? How we can avoid being in this position in the future? We don't yet have the perspective necessary to answer these questions fully. Still there are some preliminary lessons to be learned from this and the other previous instances.
Here are six of them:
1. It's the system, stupid!
If you want to understand why we are facing a government shutdown you need to understand the system that our framers gave us. It is a system of divided power and more than anything else this explains what is - and is not - going on in Washington today.
When you divide power as much as our framers did you make it difficult to get things done (i.e., like passing a continuing resolution to fund the government). There is no question our framers had good reason for creating this system and they understood it would have positive and negative consequences. On the plus side, when something finally gets done it is usually fully discussed, vetted, and reflects numerous interests. Moreover, we aren't likely to take extreme steps or veer too quickly to either the left or the right.
2. Parties matter
Anyone who has watched our system in action is already painfully aware of the drawbacks. One of the consequences that isn't often acknowledged, however, is that the more dispersed power is, the more dependent you are on extra-constitutional institutions, such as political parties, as an organizing vehicle to get things done.
In order to work effectively, however, the parties have to be healthy and unified. Unfortunately, the Republican party is not. Like the Democratic party of the 1970's and 1980's, the GOP is in the midst of an internal battle. Look at congress today and we can clearly see the results of this inter-party division and struggle. The party leaders don't have enough power to control their members. There is widespread disagreement over which direction the party should be headed, not just among elected officials, but all party members, down to the grassroots level. So while it has become fashionable to focus a good deal of attention on Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, that gives these freshman senators too much credit. They have contributed to the situation and are certainly responsible for their actions, but they wouldn't have been able to act this way if the party was healthier and more unified.
3. Divided government contributes to deadlock
Anytime you have a system as divided as ours you need to be careful not to do anything to divide it further. Yet that is precisely what the voters chose to do when they gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives and Democrats control of the Senate and White House.
Divided government is not such a bad thing if you want to maintain the status quo. If, however, you are fed up with the way things are and you want change, as many voters say they do, splitting your support between parties is counterproductive.
4. Change the system
There is only one full-proof way to insure these types of impasses don't occur in the future and it is a radical solution - change the system.
If we had another form of government - say a parliamentary system - this wouldn't be happening. Imagine if like England we had a unicameral legislature that chose the executive. If the Senate selected the President he would be responsive to them and vice-versa. The minority would still vehemently object to their actions and policies, but they wouldn't have the numbers to do more than vocalize their frustration. They certainly wouldn't have the power to stop them. How then would they get their own initiatives enacted? Simple, they'd have to win elections, take over the Senate, and select their own executive.
5. Alternatively, mitigate the divisions in our current system
Short of adopting a new form of government, which is as unlikely as it is unwise, if we want to change the status quo we need to look for other ways to mitigate the divisions within our system. There are several ideas about how we might accomplish this, including having the president select fifty percent of his cabinet from congress and giving the president the power to dissolve congress and call for new elections.
6. Promises of change need to be structural
We seldom, however, hear these types of proposals for structural change during elections. Instead we hear candidates promising change with absolutely no viable method for achieving it. The most recent example is President Obama who in 2008 promised to end the bitter partisan battles plaguing Washington. Yet like most recent candidates, he never told us how he would achieve it. He certainly never promised to make the types of structural changes necessary to lessen the divisions in our system. As a result, in the midst of his second term, Washington remains as divided as it was when he took office.
If we take away anything from the last six years it should be this: no matter how attractive, smart, and appealing a candidate may be, unless he is working to institute real structural change to mitigate the divisions in our system he will inevitably find himself in the same position as his predecessor. This is precisely what has happened to President Obama. For all the hope and promise he brought to the White House, the truth is this isn't about him, it's about the system.