The nation has barely dodged another federal government shutdown. The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay says the constant shutdown threats undermine democratic values and faith in the country.
The longest government shutdown in American history was barely over when the debate over a future closing began. Government workers ensnared in this totally avoidable mess were finally back to work when their paychecks were once again threatened.
President Donald Trump has signed legislation that leaves the government open for now. But he also declared a state of emergency so that he can fulfill a campaign pledge by building a wall along the nation’s southern border. All by spending billions without congressional approval.
Whether you support the wall or not –polls show most voters don’t –the overheated threats and never-ending debate threatens to shatter American norms. Words have meaning. When citizens hear over and over that the government could close, what are they supposed to think?
The partial shutdown and its after effects create a politics suffused with anxiety, fear and dread. The end-of-days rhetoric from the president and his cable television and talk radio amen choir give citizens the sharp impression that the bedrock of our society – a functioning government –can’t be counted on.
This is obvious for the hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors who toiled without paychecks for more than a month. The way these shutdowns have evolved makes scant sense and –surprise, surprise—hurts ordinary people more than the big shots. Federal judges and Congress members get paid. The Transportation Safety Administration people who keep the skies safe don’t get paid. Ditto for those on Coast Guard ships who brave storms at sea to rescue lost fishermen.
David Cardullo, an aviation specialist in Massachusetts, told The Public’s Radio, that he feels “stuck in the middle.” When the politicians decide they want to debate about shutdowns, “we’re the pawns that get used in the middle and it’s not fair.”
Whatever one thinks about the wall, here are some facts: Arrests of people trying to cross illegally into the country from Mexico have plunged to the lowest level since 1971. That data is not from some loony left-wing open borders advocates. It’s from the Trump Administration’s Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, arrests of undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed other crimes are up around the nation.
Government shutdowns to try to win political points didn’t begin with Trump. This sorry history had its start in the 1990s, when Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich began using closing the government to win battles they couldn’t win with a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in the White House.
What happened was the onslaught of the permanent campaign in Washington, D.C. There was once a time in politics –not so long ago—when Republicans and Democrats fought like playground adolescents during campaigns. But once the elections were over, they settled down to governing until the next election.
Those days are as gone as the Eisenhower Administration. As if Americans of the current generation aren’t unsettled enough. The 911 disasters, the economic collapse of 2008, the rash of shootings in places once seen as safe, including schools and houses of worship, combine with the over-the-top racial and political rhetoric to make people think nowhere is safe.
Adding government shutdowns to this toxic mix can’t help but make Americans think everything should be feared or disdained. There isn’t any reason for this. Regardless of the rhetoric, life in our state and nation isn’t at a nadir. We have serious problems, but compared to what other generations have faced, they are hardly insurmountable.
The economy is near full employment, we’re at relative peace and most of us are healthier than previous generations. But government shutdowns or the incessant threat of shutdowns and manufactured emergencies do nothing but give citizens unease and trigger anxiety in a time when life is complicated enough. The border is not being overrun by Brown-skinned hordes.
The founders of our Republic never envisioned that politicians would use government shutdowns to try to bully political opponents. Let’s get rid of shutdowns as a partisan political tool. There will still be plenty to fight about.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 in the afternoon. You can also follow Scott’s political reporting and analysis at our web site at ThePublic’s Radio.org