Another shutdown? Why politics got so broken, and how to fix it – The Seattle Times


This message, sent by former President Donald Trump this week on social media and directed at Republicans in Congress, should one day be in a museum.

Nothing better sums up the broken politics of this era than that.

I was a reporter just starting out covering Congress back in the 1990s when the GOP’s then-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, prompted a shutdown of the federal government.

The whole thing blew up, though, when Gingrich admitted he did it in part because he was miffed he’d been forced to sit in the back of Air Force One on a trip with then-President Bill Clinton.

“This is petty,” he acknowledged, in one of those rare times in politics when you see the man behind the curtain. “But I think it’s human.”

I was blown away. Somebody shut down the entire federal government out of personal pique? Somewhere in a memorabilia box in my basement I have a pacifier, with a caricature of Gingrich as a crying baby, that some lobbying group had handed out to argue that the government shutdown was the most juvenile thing ever.

Fast forward to today. This threatened federal shutdown is maybe more narcissistic and pointless than the one back in the 1990s.

Despite his hurt fee-fees, Gingrich to his credit had an overarching vision for government, which behind the scenes he was negotiating with the president. The sticking point then was the size of the Medicare program for seniors, and Clinton was resisting cutting it. Clinton won that fight. At its root, though, was a real policy debate between the two parties.

As you can see from Trump’s message above, there’s little coherent going on now beyond signaling to the base. Give us everything we want — from border provisions to no aid to Ukraine to defunding the FBI for Trump to something new we might tack on in a minute — or else.

“They’re trying to advocate every right-wing MAGA dream ever,” was how U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, put it.

It’s the first shutdown scenario I’ve seen where the two parties aren’t really negotiating anything. It’s bands of House Republicans fighting with one another.

“Most frustrating part about this?” Smith said. “We have the votes. There’s well over 300 votes, bipartisan votes … to stop the government from shutting down. They just won’t do it.”

Republicans are the main drivers of government shutdowns. When Barack Obama was president, the GOP forced a shutdown because they wanted to gut the Affordable Care Act. But Democrats have done it, too. Once when Trump was president, the Democrats shut it down to try to win legal protection for Dreamers, the children born in this country to unauthorized immigrants.

In both those cases, the party forcing the shutdown relented and lost. That’s because shutdowns are stupid politics. They’re ultimately advocating what Trump says in that all-caps message: No, I won’t compromise. I’m unyielding. I’m a toddler.

Yet due to partisan polarization, they persist.

Most advanced countries simply don’t allow their basic functioning to be held hostage. In Germany if they can’t pass a budget, the existing funding automatically goes on to keep operations running. In the United Kingdom if they can’t pass a budget, the ruling coalition typically resigns.

Here we have no such shame; we can’t even get politicians who have been indicted on felony charges to step aside. That you can’t tell whether I’m referring to that guy, or to that other guy, cements the point.

Last week the Pew Research Center put out a study on Americans’ attitudes toward all this, and boy was it bleak. “Americans’ Dismal Views,” it was called.

“Americans’ views of politics and elected officials are unrelentingly negative,” the survey found. It added that “65% say they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics.”

Can you blame them? Trust in government, or in institutions like the Supreme Court, is “among the lowest levels dating back nearly seven decades,” Pew found.

The scorched-earth politics of the Gingrich era started this fire. Once you’ve shut down the government over an airplane seat, it follows that anything then goes. And anything has gone.

That’s where the Pew survey gets most interesting. It found record support among the voting public for change — for systemic reform ideas such as term and age limits for politicians, campaign finance reform and getting rid of the Electoral College.

I don’t favor term limits for elected officials, as that’s what elections are for. But sign me up for limits for federal judges and Supreme Court justices. Get rid of the Senate filibuster while we’re at it. End gerrymandering. Also: there’s a bipartisan Prevent Government Shutdowns bill that would continue current operations, Germany-style, anytime they can’t pass a budget. Sign me up for that, too — for ending what has become ritual dysfunction.

Sure, voters should blame who’s directly responsible, which for this year’s mess is some Republicans in the U.S. House. (They’ve even helpfully admitted it.) But it won’t stop on its own. After a quarter-century of watching politics degrade, it’s my fervent wish that some presidential contender or slate of Congressional candidates would run on a platform of broad self-reform.

There’s plenty of problems in our country that need fixing. Maybe none is more pressing than this corrosion of the democratic system itself.

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