It’s the end of the Fiscal Year and that means its time for a Government Shutdown! Many media outlets and pundits decry a shutdown as a failure, the inability for Congress to perform its job, but is that really the case? We must examine the framework our government is built around, as laid out in the Constitution (Yes, its still in use…kind of).
The US Constitution is built around friction and conflict, checks and balances, to ensure no one branch became powerful enough to devolve into Tyranny. The Founding Fathers paranoia was born from numerous other nations which tried to form a democratic form of Government and failed. Republican (democratic) government had been attempted for, literally, thousands of years, but always devolved into a type of dictatorship. Republican Rome is a classic example, but we can now look at more recent examples such as Revolutionary France, the Taisho Democracy in Imperial Japan, the Weimar Republic in Germany, Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and, ofcourse, Iraq.
In these instances, as in many like them, what had been a democracy (or republic) was eventually drowned by a single branch of government, or person, rising to dominate the entire body. The reasons for this rise are different in every case but the result was the same; the loss of self-government and freedom.
The theory during the founding of our Republic was that if each branch of the government had limited powers and had to fight with the other branches, no one branch would be able to seize total power. If, somehow, a branch did seize power, it would still have to content with the States which had been designed as a counter balance to Federal authority. In short; our government is designed to be dysfunctional.
The Judicial Branch, headed by the Supreme Court, can interpret law but not create or enforce it. During our history there have been several instances when the orders of the Supreme Court were ignored such as after the Dread v Scott decision affirming the constitutionality of slavery. Many conscientious federal officials refused to comply and the court was powerless to compel them. During the Civil War, the Supreme Court ruled President Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas corpus for Confederate Prisoners was not constitutional. Lincoln refused and the Supreme Court dispatched a message to the Army Garrison demanding the prisoner in question be released into civilian custody, to which the Army garrison commander simply laughed and send the messenger away.
The Executive Branch, the President and the various agencies (FBI, CIA, Army, Education, VA, etc), can enforce law, but cannot create it, nor establish its legality, and, most importantly, cannot fund themselves. This is where the Congress comes into play. Our Legislature, the United States Congress, itself is broken into two groups who are also designed to fight each other, the House and the Senate. They can only create laws but, chief among those, are laws to fund the other two branches. This is the real strength of the Legislator, identified specifically by the Founding Fathers as the “Power of the Purse.”
The theory is that without money, the Executive Branch cannot pay soldiers or policemen and as such will be more willing to negotiate. Since the President has the power to Veto legislation, he (or she) can unilaterally dictate what laws are passed with rare exceptions (Congress can override a Veto but it is very, very hard). Without the Power of the Purse, the Congress would be unable to force legislation into law and the Executive Branch could easily let slip the bonds of the Constitution and rise to Tyranny.
This brings us to our current situation; a Government Shutdown. The President refuses to negotiate with Congress, insisting he will Veto any measure that is not to his liking. The Congress cannot overcome his Veto and so has but one option; the Power of the Purse. By refusing to fund the Government, the Congress is explaining its unwillingness to approve the President’s agenda. You may disagree with the issues driving this agenda, but the Congress is doing exactly what it was designed to do.
A shutdown is not a failure of the legislator, it’s the ultimate success.