The true reason for the partial government shutdown hasn’t received nearly enough attention.
Almost the entire issue has been framed around whether President Donald Trump is more of an obstructionist than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The blame game never ends.
That standoff obviously led to the shutdown, but the actual cause of the “crisis” is that the United States of America, the greatest democracy in history, blah, blah, blah, can’t meet its payroll. Even after raiding the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, we still fall billions of dollars short each month, so Congress and the president must agree to keep pumping more red ink to avoid furloughing federal workers.
Those of us who worry about the obvious weakness of an institution that operates this way are dismissed as doomsayers. Politicians like to remind us that last fiscal year’s $779 billion shortfall is under 4 percent of our annual gross domestic product, which is the total output of our nation’s goods and services. It’s also far, far below the deficit during the height of World War II, when in 1943 our deficit was 29 percent of GDP.
Pardon me if that doesn’t make me feel better. The deficit continues to worsen, despite claims that the federal tax cut that took effect last year would further stimulate the private sector, increase tax revenues and reduce government borrowing. Instead, “our” federal government spent $317 billion more than it collected during the first three months of the current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. Analysts say we are on target to end fiscal year 2019 with a $984 billion hole, the largest since 2012, as we were crawling out of the Great Recession. Conversely, we are running up this deficit at a time of prosperity, low interest rates and no major wars to strain the treasury.
The cumulative result of all of this borrowing is our national debt is now roughly $22 trillion, or 107 percent of our nation’s total annual output of goods and services and more than $67,000 per person.
As it stands, Medicare will run out of money in 2026, and Social Security will follow in 2034. The conventional wisdom is that Congress and the president will do something before then to keep those programs solvent, but the current bickering tells me they aren’t up to the task.
Here’s where we’re at:
Preserving political power takes precedence over country (and state). Special interests have a stranglehold over lawmakers. Judges increasingly are nothing more than political party loyalists. Party leaders control rank-and-file members like so many sheep. Routine use of the Senate filibuster rule has paralyzed one house of Congress. Secret party “caucuses” have replaced open floor sessions to decide policy. It all adds up to a failure of leadership and public trust in the institution.
Much has been made about federal airport security workers and air traffic controllers not being paid during the shutdown. If we funded our government properly, there would be a segregated fund paid for by fees (taxes) charged to airline passengers to cover the government’s security costs. If there’s not enough money in that fund, the fee needs to go up, just like any other enterprise.
Instead, these types of issues never get addressed, and politicians from both parties simply paper over their partisan pettiness and laziness with more borrowing. What is supposed to be an orderly federal budget process has been replaced by large annual “omnibus” spending bills passed in a last-minute frenzy. Only days or weeks later does it become clear even to those voting what is in the legislation.
There’s no easy way out of this mess. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, earlier this month introduced a bill to limit terms in Congress to 12 years for senators and six years for House members. This would require amending our Constitution, which means ratification by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and at least 38 state legislatures. I’m not holding my breath.
Term limits might make lawmakers more independent, but there are no guarantees. Even though lawmakers in their final terms wouldn’t have to bow to party leaders for their next campaign, they instead may kiss the backsides of any number of special interests who have lobbying jobs waiting for them in exchange for favorable votes while in office. Money has many avenues to poison politicians.
More helpful, perhaps, is a multi-party system to break the stranglehold of our rotten two-party system. It sickened me to watch our state Republicans usher through a slew of legislation in their waning days to reduce the authority of incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. It made them look like sore losers.
Of course, Democrats did the same thing to a lesser degree in 2010 by trying to hurry through state employee contracts before Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a Republican-controlled Legislature took over and stripped most public employee unions of their bargaining power. Those same Republicans also gerrymandered the state in their favor to tighten their political power, another travesty.
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work. “Our” government isn’t the property of political partisans to engage in their petty spats while leaving the rest of us to pay the bill and argue about who is to blame.
Politicians of both parties have abdicated their duty to serve the people. When we shut down our government over a $5 billion political spat while borrowing $7 billion every two days to keep the lights on, the system has failed and needs to be overhauled.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor.