I'm from the U.S. and write from a U.S.-centric viewpoint. This post will be about the U.S. federal government with a sprinkle of other levels, mainly to highlight why we are so dysfunctional, especially if anyone in the audience is not U.S.-based. There are a lot of opinions you wouldn't discuss at Thanksgiving. You've been warned.
You might ask what qualifies me to discuss some of this stuff. My day job involves connecting people to the government. I'm not really an expert but I've been doing this for the last twelve years. Maybe it's my contrarian streak, somehow I've managed to center my life around politics, religion, and technology. I like to tell people I'm not in politics but I'm politics adjacent. Enough so that I've even met a few members of Congress. One even knows who I am.
Due to the political nature of my job, I'm often asked government operational types of questions. And in recent days we narrowly avoided a government shutdown and then the House of Representatives voted to remove the Speaker of the House because he dared work with the Democrats to avoid the shutdown.
So why do we have shutdowns at all? The answer is long and complicated so I'll try to keep it at a surface level. There are forests of weeds we could all wade into but most of them don't matter that much. The budget has become a political football and a vehicle for the right in particular to claw away at government funding they deem worthless. It works because people are localized to their own lives. Money for inner-city schools sounds okay in principle but if the perception is that money for such things far away means there's less money for the local thing and people vote against it. Politicians love to exploit this as well, suggesting that some other people, somewhere else are undeserving but it all comes back to what we can afford.
Here's where I'll wade into the weeds a little bit, into some that will get me yelled at on social media. I'm unashamedly liberal, believing that we need a social safety net. Humans deserve physical and economic security because we are human. Safe housing, safe food, clean water, and competent healthcare should be provided to everyone without cost or the threat of losing one to gain another. But I'm also unashamedly capitalist and this is where I disagree with many of my hard leftist friends.
I'm sure I've pissed off people on both sides now, so if you're still reading I'll wade into some economics and explain. Before I go further this isn't a "both sides are bad" type of argument, especially when it comes to actual government operation. The U.S. government, at all levels, is extremely conservative, more so than the population. That, in and of itself, is the source of much dysfunction but I won't go there, at least not yet. In this case, I'm talking about the beliefs and values of citizens. There are no socialists in any significant elected office.
Something that both sides (again, citizens and beliefs, not elected officials) get wrong about economics is the idea that capital is finite. In other words, money is a limited resource that can be used up. Most on the right argue that individuals should keep their money and use it how they see fit, hoarding it if they wish to do so. There are those on the left who would like to see equal or near-equal income levels, arguing that capitalism itself requires exploitation, therefore we should do away with it as a system.
I'm not arguing that "capitalism" as practiced in the U.S. in 2023 is good, or that it isn't exploitative. I'm arguing that it doesn't have to be that way and that every economic and governmental system has to have checks and balances. Every system can be exploited because people are involved.
It's easy to forgive people for seeing money as a finite resource. For most of us, it is, as the bank doesn't like negative balances. A better way to think of money as a vehicle for exchange. I exchange my labor for cash and then exchange that cash for goods and services. Capital growth (the amount of money in the system) increases with the level of production and the efficiency of that production.
What does all this have to do with government shutdowns? For a wealthy nation, our money supply is essentially unlimited, but since most of us don't see money that way we're fearful of it going to someone else at our own expense. As I said above, politicians exploit this fear.
Past Congresses (Congressii?) passed laws mandating the government operate on a budget. It seemed like a good idea at the time but it fell apart when one side decided to stop negotiating in bad faith. It's a huge problem in the U.S. system that so much of how we operate is based on accepted norms rather than written law. The system is strained because the norms are being ignored. Shutdowns are a direct result of that. Why compromise when you can throw a hissy-fit and exploit the norms?
I think the gamble works less than it used to but some Republicans have decided there is no compromise on anything. This is why they ended up removing Rep. Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy made a deal with Rep. Matt Gaetz and the hard right. In the past, it took several members to make a motion to vacate the speaker's chair. In exchange for their votes, he changed the rule such that a single member could bring that motion. Which they did, because he brought a budget the Democrats would vote for to the floor.
I was also asked why the Democrats didn't vote to table the motion, which they could have done. Rep. McCarthy backstabbed the Democrats several times, refusing to work with them, and renigging on a budget deal several weeks ago. Unlike citizen votes for president where we're kind of stuck voting for the least bad option, it makes sense for the Democrats to oust McCarthy. It's up to the majority party to have their ducks in a row. In normal circumstances, the Democrats' votes wouldn't matter. Rep. Gaetz looks foolish (and now his own party appears to be ready to do something about his ethics violations and remove him), the Republicans can no longer pass bills, and at the end of the day, why shouldn't principled Republicans vote for some stability and elect a Democrat for the speaker's chair instead. It would only take five of them.
So what happens next? It's hard to say. No single Republican has the votes to become speaker. So like I said in the footnotes, we're probably headed for another shutdown.
So what can we do?
This one should be obvious but it's a real problem in the U.S. In 2020 only about 67% of the eligble population voted, and that was the highest turnout in history. Apathy is part of the problem but voter suppression is a huge issue as well. Remember that if your vote didn't count, people wouldn't be trying so hard to prevent some groups from doing so.
Write and call your legislators.
Believe it or not, it does move the needle a tiny bit. There are special interest groups, there are lobbyists, and corporations all vying to get their pet bills put in place. But every member I've met cares at least a little about the constituent. Both Republicans and Democrats. It may be for self-preservation purposes but they do need your vote, and when enough people band together they will start listening.
We can write but what should we demand? It's easy to think that nothing can be done. It's nearly impossible to pass Constitutional amendments but there are some real-world things that could pass if there's enough noise behind it.
Demand budget reform
The rules need to be changed such that if Congress can't pass a budget, the current budget still applies. It's not perfect because the budgets need to keep up with inflation but it would go a long way to stabilizing the economy and ensuring we end the political football shutdowns create.
Demand expansion of Congress
The House of Representatives is capped at 435 members according to the Reapportionment Act of 1929. In the meantime the population has grown nearly three-fold. The average district has 750,000 people in it. Meaning the member is overworked and constituents can't all be heard. Expanding Congress would give more equal representation, and make it harder for lobbyists to influence the process.
Demand an increase to Members' budgets and salaries
On the surface this may seem backward. The argument is usually that "Congress is overpaid!". Again this argument looks at money as finite resource. The average salary for a Senator or Rep is just under $175,000 annually. I know that seems like a fortune (the average income in the U.S. is only about $75,000) but consider they often pay for their own travel, have to maintain a home in their district and a place to live in Washington, DC (which is not cheap). They're constantly on the road both in and out of their district. Living costs more and their salaries really haven't even kept up with inflation.
Consider as well that we're competing against high paying jobs in the private sector. Members often leave Congress because they'll make two or three times more working as a lobbyist. Increasing their salaries in Congress incentivises good people to keep at it.
The budget discussion is similar. Each House and Senate office has a budget from which they can pay their staff, furnish their office, etc. It's pretty tiny honestly, I couldn't find numbers for 2023 but in 2019 it was only about $1.5 million. Increasing that number would lead to more and better paid staff, which in turn will lead to better researched laws and more constituent voices heard.
Kind of hand in hand with this are the arguments over term limits. Term limits are a terrible idea because they actively incentivise bad people to get into government as a stepping stone to a cushy lobbying job. I need to do a whole thing on term limit.
Demand admittance of Puerto Rico and Washington, DC as states
This one is easy. If we're truly going to allow citizen to have a say then everyone needs to have a say. I know that one certain party doesn't like it because it would likely cost them in the Senate but to that I say "campaign harder" and maybe "come up with better ideas".
Demand Reform of the Supreme Court
There isn't a lot of political will for this and its a hot topic. At the very least we should expand the court to 13 justices, representing the 13 circuit courts. We're four short of the minimum standard. Congress should also investigate the justices that seem to have some lapse in their ethical standards.
Long article, and if you got this far, congratulations. In conclusion, while I think we have some giant challenges, it's still possible to make the country better. It starts with rejecting the lie that government is a problem that needs to be removed. We can't remove the government without removing the checks and balances that should ensure our equal treatment and the rule of law. Instead we should demand a better government.
Thanks for reading.
- It's interesting, but the person is someone I'd rather not know. He's kind of a sleazeball and he doesn't align with my values.
- Don't worry, we'll probably have one next month
- It's not that complicated. Republicans are big doo-doo heads but I'll try to keep the conversation civil.
- Bernie Sanders is not a socialist no matter how much he claims it.
- This is why pure libertarianism is such a terrible idea. "People don't always act in good faith, so let everyone decide for themselves how they'll act" is terrible government policy.
- At some point I'll do a whole article on voter suppression.
- Most of our laws are made by 21-year-old interns who are paid less than minimum wage and barely have enough to eat. They drink a lot though.