SANTIAGO — What’s happening in the United States, with the partial federal government shutdown and the threat not to raise the country’s debt limit, is perhaps the most serious political crisis the country has seen in more than 100 years.
There are those who downplay these developments, because the government has been shuttered before — during the Clinton administration, for example, one such shutdown lasted three weeks — but the reality is that previous shutdowns happened because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on budget priorities.
Today’s situation is much different. It is not being driven because of disagreement over the budget, which is simply being used as an excuse. The shutdown is happening because the Republican Party can’t stop President Barack Obama’s health care reform resorting to the proper democratic tools: the voting booth and the legislative process. Instead, the party is exploiting its majority in the House of Representatives to hijack the government, saying they won’t reopen it unless the president scales back health care reform.
This sets a disastrous precedent. The Republicans control the House of Representatives but not the Senate, a reality that is possible because of the lower chamber’s more intricate electoral system. While Senators are elected by the voters of entire states, House members are elected by districts within the states. If a party with an electoral mandate as weak as the Republican’s is able to shut down the government because it doesn’t like a law that the President proposes and the Senate supports, then any proposal supported by the majority will never be made into law — because of minority rule.
There goes democracy. The closure affects more than just federal museums and national parks. It has also left the White House with minimal staff. There are nearly three million federal employees, 800,000 of whom have been sent home. Others have been asked to work without knowing when they might be paid. The shutdown obviously affects the economy too. It’s estimated that for every week the government isn’t fully operating, the economy grows 0.1% less.
That’s bad enough, but it could get much worse. If the legislative crisis persists and the parties don’t agree before the Oct. 17 deadline, when the federal government reaches its debt ceiling, it could become a global catastrophe.
If the United States can’t continue to take on debt because the Republicans don’t allow it, the country simply won’t be able to pay all of its bills. An abrupt and severe cut in public spending would ensure, which would almost certainly cause a recession. And if the country defaults on its debts, we would all face global financial disaster with other unpredictable consequences.
Politics is the art of the possible, and democracy is based on negotiation and concessions. It assumes that all parties are interested in the common good and that they trust the good intentions of their negotiating partners. This balance has been broken in weak democracies — like what happened in many Latin American countries in the 1970s — when governments or the opposition refuse to accept the balance of democracy, insisting instead on changing the fundamentals of society. They wind up sabotaging democracy as a viable system of government.
Congress has raised the debt ceiling 74 times, many of them during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush. But since 2001, the Republican Party has regarded the debt ceiling as a tool for getting what they couldn’t get during the legislative process. That is, they are using it as a weapon for political extortion.
The Republicans aren’t demanding just the death of the president’s Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. What they want are a series of measures that failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney favored. Basically, they are asking the president, who won the election, to govern with the policies of the candidate he vanquished.
It is clear that the United States needs profound reform in its political system — something that strengthens the presidency or establishes a parliamentary regime, so that the country doesn’t end up becoming ungovernable.
For its own good, and for the sake of Western democracy, we hope that the U.S. can use some common sense. That will only be possible if Obama can manage to twist the arm of the Republican minority. Or if Republican representatives come to their senses, approve a budget and raise the debt ceiling. If the president’s health care reform is as bad as they say, voters will turn their backs on Democrats, and Republicans will win the Senate and White House in 2016. Then if they want to dismantle Obamacare, they can use the one tool that everyone says they believe in: democracy.