Fundamental philosophical differences in American politics are as old as the Republic.
Even our nation’s founders, aside from sharing some core Puritan values and a certain distaste for the British monarchy, disagreed sharply at times about the proper role and scope of the national government under the Constitution.
But throughout most of our 237 years, the system has worked. Roads and bridges were built. Soldiers were paid. Equipment was bought. The government we share was funded and open for business.
National officeholders did their most important job, even when legislation became laws that offended some of their political philosophies, constituents or pride. They governed, often responsibly and effectively. Despite their sometimes heated disagreements, the government continued to function.
Then, in the mid-1990s, House Speaker Newt Gingrich played budget chicken with President Bill Clinton and the federal government temporarily shut down. In recent years, such budget brinkmanship has become almost the norm.
Now we approach the brink again. Unless Congress acts to replace expiring spending laws, the federal government could shut down on Oct. 1. Compounding that problem, the Treasury Department in mid-October will exhaust its borrowing authority.
Extending borrowing authority does not increase government spending, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew noted. It “simply allows the Treasury to pay for expenditures Congress has previously approved.”
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Lew added, “Protecting the … credit of the United States is the responsibility of the Congress because only Congress can extend the nation’s borrowing authority.”
Make no mistake. Congress and the administration have a spending problem. The federal government is borrowing about 41 cents of every dollar it spends.
A day of reckoning is coming. These are serious problems that need serious attention — action on spending, entitlement reform, burdensome regulations. But those discussions need to be focused and deliberate — not held under the gun of a symbolic government shutdown.
Yet a faction in the Repubilcan-controlled House appears ready to close the doors in another effort to kill the Affordable Care Act. As evidenced by the implementation delays President Barack Obama already has OK’d, the new health care law has its share of problems. But it remains the law, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The House has voted 40 times to fully or partially repeal it. Those bills went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, and even if one did somehow pass — the president would no doubt veto it.
Since Obamacare opponents lack the votes to repeal the law, they view a shutdown as the hammer that will make the Democrats and the president yield.
But shutting down the government won’t stop Obamacare, either. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has concluded that enough funds are available from the health care law and other sources for the president to continue implementing the law.
A government shutdown could stall projects such as the new StratCom headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, where officials worry that a shutdown that goes on too long might force cancellation of the contract to build the new headquarters or endanger the site’s security accreditation. It would make the already difficult situation of sequestration budget cuts to the American military even tougher.
Obamacare opponents might be surprised at what they could accomplish if they tried working to improve the law within the confines of the balance of congressional power. They should try to find common ground and use common sense. The legislative process enables them to propose changes and alternatives. And it’s incumbent on Democrats in Congress and the president to return the favor with serious negotiations.
Failing that, if opponents are correct in their judgment that the public opposes the law, next year’s elections offer another chance to change the congressional membership math.
The Founding Fathers crafted a pact to govern as one nation, despite our differences. Political factions organized around whether the federal government should be powerful and activist, or limited and predictable. Philosophical disagreements have tugged at our union since the nation’s earliest days.
Over the years, Americans have disagreed on issues as sweeping as foreign wars, states’ rights, slavery, Social Security and civil rights. The national experience in each of those controversies proves that there was a time for electioneering and a time for governing in the national interest.
And governing requires opened doors and paid bills. The United States is too vast and too economically important to play political games.