The shutdown of the U.S. government on 1 October, 2013 is a real problem. The problem is not so much the shutdown itself, but what it represents and what it reveals about our government and those entrusted to exercise its power. Whether you blame the Republicans for insisting on tying portions of the Affordable Care Act to funding the government, or you blame the Democrats for being willing to shut down the government rather giving the average citizen as much consideration as they gave corporations, the problems go deeper than that. They reveal a fundamental disconnect of both parties from those they claim to represent, and some of the consequences for allowing a government to get so bloated, so encroached into so many aspects of our lives.
To begin with, the final impasse between the House of Representatives and the Senate was not about defunding the Affordable Care Act. While that had been part of the House's bill earlier on, it was removed well before the deadline. Instead, the Republicans in the House tried to get the Democrats in the Senate to agree to give individual citizens the same one year extension they gave to big businesses, and to remove the extra health care subsidies that Congress gave to itself and its employees, but which are not available to citizens. Don't get me wrong. I firmly believe this demand was not as much to be “fair” to the average citizen as it was to have a rhetorical talking point to bring up in next year's election cycle, but I believe the same thing about the Democrat's posturing about passing a “clean” funding bill.
The real problems revealed by this shutdown are varied. The discussions leading up to this situation reveal many fundamental problems with our political society.
The Role of the Legislative and Executive Branches
A lot of outrage has been expressed by those in favor of the Affordable Care Act that the Republicans are trying to change the law. Statements have been made that the law has been passed, so they shouldn't be trying to make any changes to it. There are two problems with this. The first is that it is the function of the legislature to make laws and to change them. If that weren't the case, then slavery would still be legal and women would still not have the ability to vote. There is no obligation on any legislature to passively accept laws to which they are opposed. It is their function to raise issues to make, change, and even to repeal laws as they see fit. In our constitutional structure, this is precisely what they are supposed to do.
The second problem with this complaint is that the law has already been changed more than once, but not by the legislature. It is inconsistent for Democrats to complain that Republican legislators are trying to change the law when they passively accepted the changes made by president Obama, especially when the president has no constitutional authority to make these changes. It is reasonable to ask why it is outrageous for a group of legislators to try and amend a law to postpone the implementation of part of the Affordable Care Act when it apparently was not outrageous for the president to do the very same thing through executive order. Constitutionally, the president doesn't have the authority to modify any law passed by the legislature, this was the whole point about dividing the powers of government.
The Privilege of Big Business
From the earliest days of the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats have revealed themselves to be as much in the hands of big businesses as they accuse the Republicans of being. The list of big companies granted various exemptions started very shortly after the law was passed and has continued to the present day. The law mandates that the requirements on all businesses go into effect on the same day, but the president exempted specifically big businesses for an additional year. Since big businesses only employ half of the work force, why wouldn't the same consideration be given to those businesses that employ the other half? If businesses can be given an extension, then why can't the citizens?
The fact is that both parties cater to big businesses. This is why the bank bailouts under both Republican and Democrat administrations gave hundreds of billions to big international banks, but didn't do anything to help small businesses or the citizens at large. Our government hands over 2.5 trillion dollars to big businesses, and fines citizens who cannot afford to get health insurance even with the subsidies. Despite the rhetoric of both sides, the solutions offered by both favored big businesses instead of offering real solutions that would help the average citizen.
Citizens as Pawns and the Privileges of the Ruling Class
As much as many Americans like to think of themselves and our country as being “exceptional,” the simple fact is that we still have, and have always had, a ruling elite class that awards itself privileges not available to the rest of us. This is not something new, although it is probably more blatant than it has been in the past. The members of our government, regardless of political party, have routinely exempted themselves from laws they impose on their subjects, given themselves benefits and privileges not available to their subjects, granted special exemptions to their biggest supporters (very wealthy individuals and big businesses) that are not available to their subjects.
At the same time, their political rhetoric consistently plays on the fears, needs, and hopes of their subjects in order to try an maintain their own power. They grace ordinary citizens with the privilege of being in their presence in order to parade them in front of news cameras and exploit their problems for their own political ends.
Bloated, Out Of Control, Government
When the American Founders declared their independence from the British government, they justified their actions by claiming that the government had imposed harsh taxes, failed to grant representation, passed onerous laws, and forced them to live under tyranny. In spite of this, they established a government with far more powers than were possessed by the king and his parliament. The U.S. Government has not ceased to increase its power and size since it was founded.
This is because of the abandonment of the principle of subsidiarity. Instead of allowing the natural levels of society deal with their own issues, the highest level of government has steadily usurped the role of the lower orders of society. Republicans will claim that they do not do this because they argue for state's rights over the encroaching power of the federal government, but their position only really moves the power down one level of society instead of restoring it to the lower levels.
The problem is that our government has a bad philosophical foundation. As with any structure built upon a bad foundation, no matter how carefully you try to build it, it will collapse. The bigger the structure is when it collapses, the worse the fallout of the collapse will be.