Over the last month, news has spread that America may be heading into what’s known as a debt ceiling crisis. This means that our national debt has gotten to a point where America could default on its loans unless the limit on how much it can loan increases.
One would assume that members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, would work together to make sure that this does not happen, but for a while, there seemed to be some disagreement and failure to work together.
After the Democrats announced a compromise to temporarily raise the debt ceiling, provide a relief fund for Hurricane Harvey victims and fund the government for three months, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that the whole idea was ridiculous. However a few hours later, Trump shocked everyone in the GOP when he announced that he agreed to that compromise,.
Even though a government shutdown was averted, it is clear that Republicans were ready to allow federal workers to miss out on work and the U.S. to default on its loans just to further their political agendas – and this isn't even the first time that this has happened.
The 2014 Government Shutdown
Back in 2013, House Republicans announced that the Congressional budget they would send to the Senate would completely defund Obamacare. However, the Senate, which was controlled by the Democratic Party, did not agree to this and sent it back to the House with Obamacare funded. After a series of back and forths between the House and the Senate, Congress was unable to meet the deadline and the government shutdown for 16 days, causing almost 800,000 federal workers to go without pay for over two weeks.
Those 16 days turned into a betting pool on who was going to cave first, as neither the House nor the Senate was willing to agree on funding Obamacare. That is until then Speaker of the House, John Boehner, agreed to put the Senate plan to a vote. Some blame the House Republicans for the shutdown, while others blame the Senate Democrats. I blame everyone involved, as no one was willing to compromise until 16 days after the very last minute.
Why does this happen?
As one can probably guess, while compromise is a necessity for democracy, it rarely happens in America. The University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson have written an academic paper on the "Mindsets of Political Compromise" that concludes that this is due to two major factors: the increasing polarization of American party politics and the 1992 Presidential election.
Over time, the two political parties have shaped into polar opposites based on how they get voters. Republicans have turned from a mostly liberal political party into a conservative party. This, along with Democrats shifting from a political party who didn’t know what it wanted to be into a liberal party, has created a congress that cannot agree on anything, as both Democrats and Republicans are more interested in upholding their political stances than anything else.
This was amplified by the results of the 1992 Presidential election. Back in 1988, President George H.W. Bush infamously said that if he was elected president, he would take an uncompromisable line regarding taxes, saying “Read my lips: no new taxes.” However, the Democratic-controlled Congress wanted to raise taxes in order to decrease a deficit that was caused by President Reagan's tax cutting. After standing his ground for almost two years, Bush eventually gave in and compromised with the Democrats to create a budget that increased taxes.
This was a career-killing move as both Democratic Nominee Bill Clinton and Independent candidate Ross Perot took that sound bite and ran with it, claiming that President Bush broke a campaign promise and was an untrustworthy president. This strategy worked as almost 20 million undecided voters voted for Perot, resulting in a landslide victory for Clinton.
What can be done about this?
Now that we have a better idea of why this happens, what can be done about it? The public should advocate making the political system less about a yearly campaign. This can be done by Congressional term limits. This way Congress members will be less inclined to worry if they are going to be elected in the future.
However, even though Congressional term limits could dissuade grand stands by politicians, it is unlikely due to the Supreme Court's decision that congressional term limits are unconstitutional. The only way that this can happen is through a constitutional amendment, but enough members of Congress need to be on board with the idea for it to pass. If enough people support this, it might be enough for Congress to finally start working together.