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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Designed for deadlock: structural issues at heart of shutdown

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 23, 2013: The national parks are open again. Panda Cam remained down after the shutdown, because of too much demand. (Let the record show that the editor had to check to make certain it was working.) Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are back at their jobs. In the end, the economic cost of closing the federal government for a few weeks has been estimated in the tens of billions. However, this only represents an insignificant dip in the GDP in the long run.

The deal worked out between Democrats and Republicans in Congress does not solve the budget and debt ceiling issues permanently. Already there is the fear that all of this could happen again in a few months.

It’s a mistake to think that the partial government shutdown was the product of just partisan politics. At the heart of the present political crisis are long-standing issues of a structural nature involving the political process and the economy.

True it was tea party Republicans that brought the federal government to a standstill and nearly created an economic calamity by threatening to allow the country go into default in a bid to halt Obamacare, but they only tried to take advantage of these continuing structural problem.

What follows is a far from exhaustive list of political and economic factors contributing to the latest standoff between the GOP and Democrats.

Federal Debt Ceiling. Part of the deal Congress reached allows the Treasury to borrow until Feb. 7, 2014. The deal accomplishes nothing permanent. Will there be another debt-ceiling crisis on Feb. 6, 2014? Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared there will not be a repeat of the last three weeks. However, he does not control House Republicans -- John Boehner does, at least, nominally. In light of the damage suffered by the Republican brand resulting from the shutdown, it seems unlikely that he will want to go through all of that again. 

The debt ceiling is a creation of Congress and it can be altered or eliminated by Congress. It is a remnant of the need to finance the First World War, and at the very least, needs to be revisited by Congress for its relevance to current economic needs.

Gerrymandering and safe congressional districts. The 40 or so tea party Republicans in the House benefit from the tendency of most state legislatures to draw congressional district boundaries to favor the party that controls state government. Thus it comes as no surprise that these members of Congress are not worried that their extreme stands will be punished by the voters:

  1. The districts are drawn to maximize the number of Republican votes so their voters are likely to strongly approve of their anti-Obamacare position and
  2. They have nothing to fear from the party’s congressional leadership because those people do not control the GOP primary process in their state

A socio-economic factor contributing to the creation of safe districts is the geographical self-sorting that is becoming increasingly prevalent among Americans. Thus, conservatives are moving to conservative communities and liberals to liberal ones, thereby reinforcing the pre-existing ideological orientation of the community.
Rising entitlement spending. Entitlement benefits are growing rapidly with the increase in cost-of-living and population of beneficiaries. Combine this with caps on new taxes and you have a recipe for political conflict. The Democrats are unwilling to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits and the Republicans oppose tax increases. Something has to give. Both sides have strong interest groups behind them that makes remote the possibility entitlement spending growth will be curtailed or taxes will be raised.

The debt ceiling, safe congressional seats and entitlement spending have been given their due elsewhere as precipitating causes for the current political bind we’re in. Other culprits that have not been widely recognized are: the 24 hour news cycle, social media and the wholesale dismantling of campaign finance regulation by the Supreme Court. These additional causes reinforce the politically polarizing effects identified above.

These trends are likely to stay with us for a very long time. At the risk of sounding overly pessimistic, they suggest that the politics of brinksmanship is not likely to pass from the national stage any time soon.

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