Shutdown: Has Partisanship Closed Down A Country?


By Thomas Sherlock

Last week the Government of the United States of America shutdown. This is a very odd concept from a British perspective but it’s one made possible by the complex system of checks and balances imposed by the constitution. Most of last week was spent with politicians pointing the finger at the other faction, however the real cause of the shutdown may lie in much broader problem: political partisanship.

In the UK, partisanship is very much the order of the day due to the parliamentary system. A parliamentary system allows for a combative relationship between parties; due to the nature of the voting system parties are not usually required to work together as one will have enough of a majority to govern alone. As with every rule in politics there are exceptions, but fundamentally in a parliamentary system, parties can be at complete loggerheads and the government can run.

This is not the case in the US. As per the Constitution, the power of the budget lies with Congress, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate needing to pass it for the government to continuing running. If by a certain date there is no agreement on how to fund the government, none of it is funded at all. All non-essential federal services shut down. This has happened 17 times in US history since the modern budgeting process began in 1974. The reason for these shutdowns is the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act, which states that it is the president who proposes the budget, so the budget passing relies on co-operation between Congress and the White House. Such co-operation has been proving increasingly difficult to achieve. Another complication is that to ensure its passage the budget requires 60 votes in the Senate. Currently this means some Democrat senators ‘support is required despite the Republicans having a majority in both houses of Congress.

To get around this division carefully, bipartisan work is required; it would be perhaps  reasonable to expect the author of The Art of the Deal to be in his element here. Apparently not so, as the divisions between both parties over immigration controls could not be overcome. Tempting as it is to pin the blame solely on Trump; the shutdown is a symptom of a wider problem-a system of compromise in crisis due to the rise of partisanship.

Political parties do not appear in the US Constitution and many of the founding fathers were actively against their existence, George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 being a prime example. Ironically enough one of his main warnings regarded partisanship, which has become a defining part of US politics in recent years. Movements such as the Tea Party and the growth of primary challenges have pushed the two parties apart to such an extent that co-operation between them are seen as exceptions, not the rule. Even senators who are willing to cross the divide face the fear of alienating their base, potentially leading to their own deselection. This has spread to the discourse in US politics, the other party (and by extension its supporters) being perceived as ‘the enemy’, which is only exacerbated by the rise of fake news.

This fed into the negotiations before the shutdown, as now reaching a compromise is portrayed as one side weakly backing down and the other ultimately triumphing. Neither wants to be the losing side. The bill passed to re-open the government was only a temporary measure, not a full budget; another shutdown could well happen. Even the negotiations for that temporary measure were heated, with senators literally having the use a talking stick at one point. Overall the situation is detrimental to how the US is designed to be governed; it relies on representatives working together and this partisanship drives them apart. The shutdown is the symptom of a much wider disease in US politics, one for which there may be no easy cure.



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