SIIA Associate Fellow Therese Leung analyzes reasons for the gridlock that almost shut down the American government - and why it didn't.
Published in TODAY (Singapore), 11 Apr 2011
by Therese Leung
In a dramatic finale to a seemingly endless roller coaster of negotiations, United States President Barack Obama and the leaders in Congress announced a last-minute agreement on Friday night to fund the US government for the remainder of the fiscal year. Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed triumph and relief that a deal had been struck with less than 90 minutes before the shutdown deadline.
But the American public felt differently. They expressed only exasperation at a political process that often goes awry.
What does this reflect about the US political system?
The American political process is designed to represent the diverse opinions of all the people. But sometimes, factions that hold strong competing beliefs tend to speak louder and command greater representation from lawmakers. When this happens, the political system grows more partisan and an uncompromising approach emerges from both sides.
The American political system has not always been a picture of partisan-fuelled gridlock. For decades, bipartisan budget agreements have been adopted with significantly less drama. Of course there were disagreements, but trade-offs were made. And the budget process remained essentially a discussion over what policies and programmes were important.
However, one small group with strong views on the federal budget has recently influenced the process. The newly-elected members of the Tea Party, the anti-spending and anti-government political group, have demanded an unprecedented level of spending cuts which Democrats strongly disagreed with.
The Republicans were able to take over the House of Representatives because of the support from the Tea Party, and when they have insisted on more spending cuts - at any political cost - the Republicans have acquiesced. This generated a highly partisan atmosphere during the budget negotiations.
Ugly political divisiveness was also a sticking point during the last stages of the budget negotiation when one small faction within the Republican Party proposed the controversial de-funding of Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider.
It wasn't about the money - the amount in dispute was a meagre US$80 million (S$101 million), a minuscule portion of the US$3.5-trillion federal budget. But they held up the entire budget process to fight over this intractable issue where each party has an opposing, deep-rooted philosophical position. To raise this issue at that time seemed almost as if the anti-abortion Republicans were hoping to spur an all-out brawl with the Democrats.
In the end, both sides claimed victory. The Democrats were able to successfully block the highly controversial cuts, Republicans got to shave US$38 billion off the budget, which is the largest annual spending cut in history, and a government shutdown was averted.
Yet this whole process has left the American public exhausted from the partisan rancour and disillusioned with their political institutions. This frustration can often lead to political disengagement.
But strong public engagement is critical to any well-functioning democracy. If cynicism towards government leads people to not care or voice their interests, then the American public leaves the door open for the groups that can simply scream the loudest, like the Tea Party, but do not represent the very reasonable beliefs of the average citizen. And that will only exacerbate the political divisiveness.
The budget process revealed a fascinating window into the American political system. Contrary to what the critics claim, the American system of government is not broken. Yes, partisan politics will occur on occasion and sometimes, more often than wanted.
But the American public needs to continue to stay engaged and express their convictions because ultimately those interests are weighed more heavily and taken more seriously than the smaller, feuding political factions. They should also press their lawmakers to ensure that the political process stays productive with an eye towards compromise.
In fact, according to polls conducted by the Wall Street Journal, the majority of the public expressed support for a budget compromise and had very little appetite for a government held hostage by partisan bickering. And this turned out to be one of the key motivating factors for lawmakers to finally reach a budget agreement on Friday.