We Can’t Go On Like This


Andrew Shlomchik, Staff Writer

Last week, the US government nearly shut down. The fiscal year of the United States government ended on October 1st, but a new budget appropriations bill, which governs how the money of the US government is spent, has yet to be worked out. The ability to apportion the trillions of dollars in US tax revenue, or, “the power of the purse,” is perhaps Congress’s most powerful ability. It is also one of Congress’s most critical duties, as, without funding, the government has and will shut down.

To prevent nearly all government services from screeching to a halt (although those covering the safety of human life or the protection of property are exempted, think the TSA), Congress enacts bills called “short-term continuing resolutions,” which essentially extend funding from the previous budget to keep the metaphorical lights on in the government while a budget deal is worked out. On Thursday, Republicans attempted to include provisions against President Biden’s vaccine mandates in the measure, threatening to prevent its passage, which would initiate a government shutdown after the Friday deadline had passed. The measure ended up passing, without any of the vaccine mandate provisions, although the bill did include funding to support new Afghan refugees. In short, Congress nearly didn’t do its job for the sake of partisanship.

The legislative branch of the US government has been plagued with dysfunction as of late, this most recent example not even being the worst of it. The filibuster has effectively paralyzed the Senate from passing legislation, forcing Democrats to attempt to fit all of their legislative aspirations into one budget reconciliation bill. Extreme polarization on both sides has made compromise the dirtiest word in Washington, with politicians terrified of collaborating to enact legislation for fear of angering voters and losing a reelection bid. Congress really hasn’t been doing much of anything; however, the problems haven’t gone away. Issues like climate change, COVID-19, wealth inequality, the southern border, child pornography, and big tech monopolies remain all too real.

Recent flooding by the Ahr River in Insul, Germany may have been influenced by climate change.

Ideally, one would hope that those in our government who have so much power are well-educated, reasonable, and pragmatic legislators, carefully consider each issue and use the vast wealth of knowledge available to them to craft the most effective policy. One would further hope that these people would always at heart have the best interest of the nation they serve and would gladly sacrifice their own, personal prospects to ensure that the nation perseveres and prospers. Unfortunately, one would find their hopeful aspirations crushed under the steel-toed boot of reality. 

Politicians often don’t fulfill their title of civil servants. At heart, likely many truly believe in the betterment of the United States and believe that they are working to that end. But they don’t act like it. Instead of always acting with the interests of the nation and the people first, they are subservient to financial and populist interests. Lobbying firms influence politicians with billions of dollars in lobbying funds, which, let’s face it, essentially amount to bribes. We don’t often call it corruption, but if we suppress our hubris about America being the “City upon a Hill” of democracies, it is painfully obvious. 

Lobbying funds are usually for reelection campaigns, and reelection seems to be the only thing that many politicians care about. I suspect they self justify themselves with the notion that to enact change, they have to preserve the political power of themselves and their party, but in doing so, they are engaging in destructive activity towards the nation. To remain in power, they pander to the most extreme members of their party, a group that seldom represents the views of the broader public. They are subject to the day-to-day populist tendencies of these constituents, and too often, they make decisions they know are against the interest of the nation for the sake of placating these voters. These politicians would sooner satisfy a demand for an illogical and poorly researched policy than risk losing a reelection bid.

Often, their pandering isn’t even related to matters of policy but simply makes a statement that detracts from the smooth running of the government, and therefore the best interest of the nation. The recent spat over the continuing resolution is a perfect example of this. Republican leaders probably knew that they weren’t going to pass any provisions against vaccine mandates in a million years, given how integral they are to the Biden administration’s measures against COVID-19. It was a statement, a form of virtue signaling to their constituents about just how devoted they were to the fight against government overreach. Democrats have engaged in similar practices, such as including vast amounts of social spending in the budget reconciliation package that they were well aware would not pass, simply to send a message to voters. These practices are incredibly counterproductive, and further, intensify the dysfunction of Congress.

We can’t go on like this. If Congress can barely keep the government open without erupting into partisan brawls, how do we expect them to face climate change when petroleum companies are handing out what essentially amount to bribes left and right, and large portions of the American public are blatantly anti-science? How do we expect our government to deal with the expanding wealth inequality when the wealthiest Americans have so much sway over what politicians get valuable campaign funds? What does it mean that the United States government’s primary way of solving problems is currently incapable of doing so? As I have said before, our problems aren’t going anywhere, and we will be at a severe disadvantage compared to other nations if we continue on this path of inaction. We are becoming no better than any of the other nations we once looked down upon as the most democratic part of our government becomes powerless.

This, in and of itself, is a problem. As the legislative branch of the government declines in influence as it becomes more and more clear that it cannot affect meaningful policy, the executive and judicial branches fill the power vacuum. The White House, seeing that its allies in Congress cannot pass the promised policy goals, regardless of party, attempts to fulfill the promises to voters by taking unilateral actions. These actions are not only less effective but also less democratic. A powerful executive branch is an antithesis to what the founders intended and is a step closer to democratic backsliding. The judicial branch, as well, has become incredibly powerful. Issues like abortion and gun control that are utterly intractable in Congress, are now being decided in the Supreme Court, a panel of nine judges that aren’t even directly chosen by the people.

Protesters outside the Supreme Court during arguments about Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case expected to determine whether the landmark Roe v. Wade decision ensuring abortion rights will be upheld.

The declining influence of Congress is having a corrosive effect on democracy, and the damage is mostly being inflicted by self-serving politicians in Congress. If our elected leaders were reasonable and selfless, they would be willing to compromise to ensure that action is taken on the issues at hand. Instead, reelection is their primary goal, and to that end, they are at the mercy of financial and populist interests. Our Founding Fathers worried about the prospect of “too much democracy”, which might allow for mob rule and populism to reign supreme. To some extent, their worries were justified, as politicians are so beholden to the whims of the populace, and therefore the whims of financial interests, that they are not free to make the best decisions for the nation.

I honestly don’t know what the right course is to take from here. Should we reduce the direct influence that the populace has over politicians in hopes that it might free them to make better decisions? But wouldn’t that make it even more difficult to hold bad politicians to account, and isn’t such an act against the democratic values of the nation? Is it the mediascape that is so intensifying polarization and removing room for compromise that is to be blamed? Or perhaps it is a voting process that favors those on the extremes that need to be altered?

There are no easy solutions, but we cannot go on like this. We cannot allow our democratic institutions to be paralyzed to such an extent that we are no longer able to help our nation further prosper and persevere. As long as these conditions persist, we are at a fundamental disadvantage to our peer nations, and solving problems like climate change is almost impossible. We are beholden, then, to the whims of the vicious woes we are forced to face.