Later this week, I am going into my son’s 6-9 grade class to discuss all that is happening in Washington, DC with the federal government. Combined with my son’s seventh grade spelling list for the week, I have constructed a story. Is there a broader lesson here about seventh grade academics and the antics in Washington? Perhaps… but for now, a story. The spelling words are underlined; feel free to use them to construct your own version of the Government Shutdown.
A Story of a Government Shutdown: Using Seventh Grade Spelling Words
Thomas A. Bryer, PhD * firstname.lastname@example.org
The founders of the United States created a system of government based on the assumption that individual people are not angels. Indeed, they thought just the opposite. Far from our nation being as a city upon a hill, to use the famous sermon by John Winthrop, or even a temple of democracy, the founders thought it best to create a system in which the powerful were separated into different branches of government. The executive, led by the President of the United States, is one; the legislative, consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate, is the second; the judicial most prominently exemplified by the Supreme Court, is the third.
The system seemed logical. If we cannot trust the people we elect to serve in government to act without greed or scorn or complete carelessness with respect to the needs of the citizens, then we must create separations and barriers to ensure we remain a nation of laws, not politics that are only profitable for a few.
Unfortunately, all the checks and balances have from time to time, including in this time, left our country in quite a pickle. Today, the government is shutdown because two branches of government—the executive and the legislative—cannot agree to pass a budget. (Actually, the disagreement is not about a budget but about continuing to fund the government using the same dollar amounts as last year—something we label a “continuing resolution”). Republican members of Congress have tried to use this process to include a provision that defunds or delays the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare). The result is that our governmental branches are frozen like an icicle hanging at an angle under the gutter, making it hard to melt. Indeed, it is difficult to even see a trickle of water, as all citizens see in the news are our elected leaders being impolite.
How do we solve this puzzle? On one hand, the system is working exactly as it should be. On the other hand, the only serious conclusions we can draw are that the techniques being used to win a policy argument are not showing the strength of our government but the underlying weaknesses of our government. This view is confirmed by leaders from other countries, such as China, and by leaders of organizations like the International Monetary Fund.
Our elected officials like to flashback to our country’s founders to persuade citizens they are morally and philosophically right in their positions. In all seriousness, if I had a nickel for every time I heard a member of Congress quote from the Federalist Papers, I would be a very rich person. However much insight we can get from the founders, we might perhaps find better luck with the less often quoted group: not the federalists (those who advocated for the passage of the U.S. Constitution) but the anti-federalists (those who would have preferred a government closer to the people, perhaps even putting more trust in people to be a little bit more like angels if given the chance).
The answer to our current dilemma is not to be found in the Federalist Papers but in the people. Policymakers who thought they could win a policy battle by shutting down the government, we might suggest, have seriously misjudged the people. A definition of insanity often cited is when we keep doing the same thing over and over again despite getting bad results; this is what we, the people, are letting happen in our politics. We are not mere tenants in this country, paying taxes as rent. We have an obligation to pay rent in the form of public service and as active citizens. As I heard former Virginia governor, Douglas Wilder, say, “Public service is rent for our time on earth.” We are citizens, not tenants.
However, we must not stand alone as citizens. It is like the parable of the butler’s dream in the tale of Joseph and his amazing, multi-colored coat. In a vineyard, the butler dreamed that he took some grapes, pressed them to wine, and delivered the wine to the authorities of the time. Joseph, confined to prison with the butler, asked for help. He knew the authorities would not hear his plea unless someone else, the butler, also made the plea as well. To succeed, though, citizens must sequence their activity. They must talk to each other, ask for help, get their facts straight, and demand the government open again. Maybe then, just maybe, with an active and educated citizenry, we can be as a city upon a hill, a temple of democracy, and a land viewed from around the world as a place of reason, of laws, and indeed of angels.