There has been much finger pointing going around lately. Republicans say it is the Democrats fault; Democrats say it is the Republicans fault. To get at the root cause of the current government shutdown, though, one must understand why our Founding Fathers designed our government the way they did.
All democracies have two basic functions – policy and representation. Democratic governments must both get things done (policy) and account for the diverse interests of the populace (representation).
These two basic functions, though, are in tension with each other. The reason is simple – an institution that must represent the views of many will have more difficulty coming to an agreement than an institution that represents the views of a few. A democracy that performs its representation function well has more difficulty with its policy function. Likewise, a democracy that is more efficient at making policy will suffer in its ability to represent the diverse interests of the country.
When the U.S. Constitution was written, our Founding Fathers clearly had a preference for a government that performed its representation function well over a government that performed its policy function well. Compared to the U.S. government, on the other hand, the English government tends to favor its policy function over its representation function.
Imagine for a moment that you were going to design a democracy from scratch. If you wanted to make sure that your government was really good at getting things done – the policy function – would you have a bicameral legislature, separation of powers and midterm elections? Not hardly. All of these design features, and more, were put in place by our Founding Fathers to make sure we had a government that represented the diverse interests of the country. They were less concerned about designing a government that got things done, or made policy well.
Now, back to the shutdown.
"But one faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government doesn't get to shut down the entire government just to re-fight the results of an election," President Barack Obama remarked Monday.
Besides the fact that the government did get shut down, at least partially, Obama appears to misunderstand that our government was designed such that "one faction of one party, in one house of Congress" could have a great deal of influence, at least compared to its size.
Plus, while voters did choose Obama to be president, they also chose Republicans to control the House. Indeed, Republicans took control of the House in 2010, and were re-elected in 2012, in large part as a rejection of the president's policies. So, when they reject the president's policies while passing legislation, they are representing the will of their voters. The only election that seems to count, in Obama's view, is the one that elected him, while the elections that put Republicans in power should have no consequences.
Our Founders wanted a government in which all factions were represented in the policy process, and that is what is happening. With a diverse group of factions represented, holding sharply different views about the role of government, our government is having difficulty performing its policy function, or simply getting things done.
So, we have the Republicans who are representing the interests of their voters, Obama and Democrats who are representing the interests of their voters. With a deeply divided electorate, our government is representing those interests so well that they are unable to reach an agreement. And, it is all the fault of our Founding Fathers. Blame it on them.