Government shutdown: Is it George Washington's fault?

Some scholars today are claiming that the current US political predicament – the government shutdown – stems from flaws in the Constitution itself. But this has to do with details, not the idea of America itself.

Jim Bourg/Reuters
A statue of George Washington, the first president of the United States, is seen near the office of House Speaker John Boehner in the US Capitol building in Washington October 1, 2013.

As the government shutdown of 2013 stretches into its third day, one Washington activity that’s still running full speed is blame-throwing. Democrats say the current sorry state of affairs was caused by Republicans, while some Republicans say the problem is Democrats. Others in the GOP complain bitterly that the conservative tea party faction has led its own party off a cliff.

Here’s another thought: What if the whole thing is George Washington’s fault?

OK, we’re using the Father of the Country as a symbol here, but it’s not too far a stretch. Before he was the young nation’s first chief executive, Washington was a Founding Father and the president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. And some scholars today are claiming that the current US political predicament stems from flaws in the Constitution itself.

It’s a “crisis that demonstrates that presidential democracy sucks,” writes Scott Lemieux, assistant professor of political science at The College of Saint Rose, on the academic blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money.”

Look, before you grab your musket and fife and drum and come after us, just listen to the explanation, OK? We understand that forebears and founding documents are venerated in the United States as in few other nations. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect. We’re talking here about details, not the idea of America itself.

The problem is our old friend checks-and-balances. James Madison et al. wanted a government in which power is diffused and tyranny averted. They designed a system in which a president and two chambers of a legislature are elected separately, yet must govern at the same time. When a dispute arises between these branches, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved,” wrote the late Juan Linz, a distinguished Yale professor of political science, in a 1990 paper titled “The Perils of Presidentialism.”

In other words, the current standoff is a feature of US democracy, not a bug. There’s no direct method whereby President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner can force the other to capitulate.

“They can point fingers and wave poll results and stomp their feet and talk about ‘mandates,’ but the fact remains that both parties to the dispute won office fair and square,” writes Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, explicating Professor Linz’s ideas.

That would not be the case in a parliamentary democracy such as Britain. In Britain, the head of government holds office because of the support of the majority of a one-chamber legislature. (Basically, the House of Lords does not have much power at this point.)

When a prime minister loses the support of his or her parliamentary majority, there’s a no-confidence vote, followed by either a new parliamentary coalition and new governing cabinet, or a national election to let the people decide.

The US system is not really majority rule. A parliamentary system is.

“[I]n a parliamentary democracy a minority party by itself couldn’t force a crisis or cause the government to collapse,” Professor Lemieux writes.

That said, there are certain aspects of the current US crisis that aren’t structural, in the sense that they aren’t written in the Constitution. Most notable here is the upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling.

That’s just a function of the way Congress has designed its own budget and spending system. But given the importance to the US and world economies of America paying its already-incurred debts, the debt ceiling vote is a “dangerous toy” that’s been lying around waiting for someone to pick up and use, according to Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

In recent years, minority parties have increasingly turned to such unorthodox tools in an effort to slow or reverse policy change, Professor Masket writes on the political science blog “Mischiefs of Faction.”

State legislative recalls are on the rise, for instance. In the US Senate, the use of the filibuster has increased.

“These are the tools of a frustrated minority party in an era of polarized parties," writes Masket. "When a majority party is advancing an agenda that the minority party finds unacceptable (as is almost inevitable when the parties are so ideologically distinct from each other), the normal methods of disagreement will begin to seem insufficient.”

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