Government shutdown threat points to seismic shift in Congress

For decades, Americans mostly left lawmaking to legislators in those infamous 'smoked-filled rooms.' Now, with cable news and the Internet, voters increasingly want to be involved and listened to.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
In a divided and divisive Congress, conservatives in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives are cruising toward a vote to gut President Barack Obama's health care plan as part of a temporary funding bill to prevent a partial government shutdown at the end of the month.

Yes, this is happening again.

The United States government appears to be careening toward a government shutdown, again. Congress is taking the world closer to the brink of financial uncertainty by bargaining over the debt ceiling, again. And D.C. has settled into that now-familiar mode of thinly veiled panic, in which everyone assumes that America will not go off the cliff but no one is quite sure how, again.

And who is to blame? Well, perhaps us.

The government's chief budgeteer, Douglas Elmendorf, might not put it in those words exactly. There's plenty of blame to go around, after all. But as head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Elmendorf is a man with a unique view on Washington's budget crises, and he had this to say last week:

“One obstacle to progress is that I’m not sure that members of the public understand the nature of the challenge,” he told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast.

In her coverage of the breakfast, the Monitor's Linda Feldmann noted a Washington Post poll that found 43 percent of Americans don’t want Congress to raise the debt limit, but 73 percent say going into default would do “serious harm” to the economy. The crossover in those numbers suggests that 26 percent of respondents either didn't understand what not raising the debt limit would do or were advocating a high-stakes game of political jiu-jitsu – willing to cause "serious harm" for a perceived long-term benefit.

In the current political climate, these opinions matter. It's not that the voice of the American voter never mattered. But for decades, Americans went about their daily lives and mostly let legislators get on with the business of legislating. 

The result was the infamous "smoke filled rooms," the "backroom deals," the earmarks for "bridges to nowhere." As the public now sees daily, governing involves a host of choices, none of them simple. So they were made in secret and with no small number of personal favors (earmarks) to ease the political pain. Earmarks were called pork for a good reason: They greased the way for a bill's passage.

Now, all that is gone. In December 2010, in anticipation of the tea party surge that had just inundated Mr. Obama at the polls a month before, the Senate put an end to earmarks. Congress has not been the same since.

The decision accelerated Congress's rapid evolution from a cauldron of dealmaking to a legislative minefield in which every incautious step could be politically fatal. With cable news and the Internet, after all, voters are more aware of every political burp than ever before, and they increasingly want to be involved and listened to – or they will hold legislators accountable. Just ask Republican former Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah or Richard Lugar of Indiana, old-school dealmakers who lost primaries to tea party challengers. Or the two pro-gun-control lawmakers recalled in Colorado this month.

The political leash for lawmakers is getting shorter, and they know it. Of course, this trend is strongest on the right, but consider the Wisconsin recall elections in 2011 and 2012, which also unseated two state senators and gave Gov. Scott Walker a scare. All three were Republicans and had run afoul of unions.

For an institution whose primary goal is perpetual reelection, these changes are seismic. American voters are inserting themselves into the political process in ways that haven't been seen for decades, if ever, and Congress has still not come to grips with it.

The changes are hardly less important for voters. While legislators of the past were paid to understand complex issues like the debt ceiling and left comparatively free to do what they thought best, voters today are increasingly taking that responsibility upon themselves by holding legislators close to heel. 

Is that a bad thing? Political scientists might take different sides. On one hand, the legislative "sausage-making" that once went on behind closed doors is now out in the open – and has no grease to unstick the gears. Congress's single-digit approval rating suggests everyone is revolted.

On the other hand, Congress is now dealing with bills on their merits, leading the nation into a full-throated debate about what the size, shape, and function of a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" should be. But if there are going to be any "grand bargains," it is the American voter who is going to have to make the compromises.

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