The federal budget is meant to be a reflection of the priorities of our nation. From February to the beginning of a new fiscal year in October, our shared budget is supposed to be first proposed by the President, then fleshed out by Congress, where each area of spending is debated openly through the passage of 12 distinct appropriations budgets.
I’ll admit I never paid much attention to this process. I learned how it works this Friday at our forum on the Impacts of the Federal Budget for Massachusetts from Lindsay Koshgarian of the National Priorities Project. More accurately, I learned how it doesn’t work. Since 2010, our federal budgets have been passed late, sometimes more than halfway through the year they are supposed to govern. Lacking a budget, Congress relies on continuing resolutions and omnibus bills. These substitute measures typically maintain spending levels from the previous year, with no opportunity to trim unneeded programs, shift funding to new priorities, or engage the public in any conversation about how our tax dollars are spent. And even these stopgaps fall victim to the partisan, polarized politics of our time, resulting in government shutdowns.
Congress has the power to shut down the government to make a point. But should it use that power? Harvard Law professor Mark Tushnet uses the term “constitutional hardball” to situations like this when politicians use every tactic available to them under the letter of the law. Tushnet is quoted in an op-ed in this Sunday’s New York Times by Steven Levinsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard professors of government and authors of the book How Democracies Die. They argue that democracy depends on two fundamental norms: mutual toleration (treating my rival as a legitimate member of the government) and forbearance (practicing self-restraint in the exercise of power, so that other parts of the government can play their roles). When these norms break down, as they did in Perón’s Argentina, Chavez’s Venezuela, and pre-Civil War America, then democracy dies.
A government shutdown is hard on the economy, especially on the government workers whose jobs are put on hold. What is even more troubling is the shutdown of the basic norms and values that allow our democracy to function.