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Punch-drunk America

The shutdown may have ended,but the underlying dysfunction remains.

Written by Robert M. Hathaway |
October 26, 2013 12:19:29 am

The shutdown may have ended,but the underlying dysfunction remains.

Official Washington resumed business last Thursday amidst relief that the 16-day government shutdown had ended and the prospect of a default on government obligations had been averted.

This being Washington,the first instinct was to tally the losers and winners from the protracted standoff. The list of losers includes almost everyone remotely associated with this mess: one,the Republicans. The intra-party civil war between the establishment and Tea Party conservatives has eroded the GOP brand with the US voter. Two,the Tea Party “true believers” have demonstrated,to the satisfaction of a majority of American voters,that they represent a kooky fringe incapable of governing. Three,John Boehner,the House speaker,while applauded for finally getting out of the way of a deal,has lost any semblance of control over House Republicans. Four,the US economy. While true disaster was avoided,a variety of businesses dependent on government contracts or the spending of federal employees have suffered. Five,federal employees. Most will receive full back pay,but the uncertainty and disruption have demoralised the workforce and further diminished the lure of public service.

Six,America’s reputation abroad for sober-minded leadership. Confidence overseas in US leadership has declined for more than a decade. But never before has Washington appeared so dysfunctional to so many. Why,people from Delhi to Dakar will rightly ask,should we look to Washington for answers? Seven,the domestic crisis forced President Barack Obama to cancel his trip to Southeast Asia,raising new doubts about the administration’s professed intent to prioritise the Asia-Pacific region. And finally,the confidence of the American people in their political system. Americans increasingly despair of their government’s ability to deal with serious problems in a serious way. This crisis of confidence itself further discourages concerted efforts to confront difficult policy issues.

The roster of winners from this unedifying spectacle is considerably shorter. Obama has clearly emerged stronger from his showdown with Congressional Republicans. Given how even Democrats were despairing of his leadership only a month ago,in the wake of the administration’s mishandling of the Syrian chemical weapons issue,his political rebound has been remarkable. Equally remarkable has been Obama’s good fortune in the timing of this standoff,since it coincided with the glitch-filled rollout of the next phase of his signature healthcare law. The crisis all but drove the difficulties associated with the healthcare programme from the news. Whether the president will be able to translate this victory into more lasting achievements remains to be seen.

Yet one thing is certain: rather than opening the way for a new era of bipartisan cooperation,the deal merely delayed until early next year the tough political and fiscal decisions that triggered the shutdown. Government spending has been funded only through mid-January. Government borrowing is authorised only until February. This,alas,is increasingly how Washington does business these days: stave off crisis at the last moment,kick the can down the road,and refuse to deal in a serious way with the underlying challenges facing the country.

It’s reasonable to assume that the Republicans in January will not be eager to force another showdown such as this. But there’s one problem with that logic: reason has not been the driving force in any of this business. Absent an end to the toxicity permeating Washington politics,however,America,like an unreformed alcoholic,will lurch from one crisis to the next.

The writer is director,Asia programme,Woodrow Wilson Centre,Washington,DC

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