Today is the first day of a new fiscal year – happy New Year! Unfortunately, there isn’t much to celebrate. In the last year not a single appropriations bill was enacted into law, we are no closer to addressing entitlement spending and long-term deficits, and as of midnight last night the government has shut down, because our politicians are acting like children. I’ve written before about my disenchantment with our elected officials in Washington and their inability to work together – but today, I find my disgust at an all-time high, and my respect for all of those responsible at an all-time low.
Regardless of the outcome of the latest shutdown-showdown, the fact that I have to refer to it as “the latest” showdown is inexcusable. Worse yet, I know there will be more showdowns in the very near future, not just on funding the government, but also on preventing Washington from defaulting on its obligations – and that carries a very real threat of plunging us back into the economic crisis we experienced in 2008.
Brinkmanship and government shutdown preparation have become a way of life every few months, and the mindless sequestration cuts without regard to merit have become the new normal. In the past, our political leaders moved mountains to avoid sequestration and shutdowns, but now they are accepted as normal? That isn’t right.
The consequence of all this dysfunction is enormous. Morale is abysmal among military and civilian workers, many of whom suffered pay freezes and furloughs and are facing even more sacrifices because of the politicians’ inability to perform the basic functions of government. Military readiness is suffering. Federal contractors are waiting for their government customers to make basic decisions that affect our national security, our businesses and our employees’ livelihoods – but the government customers can’t take action because of the repeated and politically-driven budget impasses Washington creates every few months.
Sadly, Washington is broken. Broken because of politics and a failure of leadership. I’m holding all politicians accountable, even those I once admired.
I fault the rank and file members of the House and Senate for being unwilling to work together and compromise to get done what needs to be done. Unrelenting stubbornness is unacceptable for elected officials. Pandering to your increasingly narrow and extreme political base is not what we need from public servants. We need them to empower their respective leaders to responsibly solve problems, not pour more gasoline on the fire.
I fault the congressional leadership of both parties for not having the backbone to tell their members the truth – that governing requires the Congress to work together across party lines for the common good. Leadership means not allowing their party caucuses to be pushed further to the left and right, respectively, just to appease special interest groups. These individuals have been empowered to lead their members, not just serve as mouthpieces for the loudest, most extreme voices from inside and outside of Congress. We need new leadership in Congress that understands how to lead, not simply regurgitate the most liberal or conservative positions of their parties. We need problem-solvers who will remember that as politicians, their ultimate responsibility isn’t politics at all – but governing.
Finally, I fault the President and his Administration for repeatedly being MIA and failing to show any presidential leadership. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush was in a similar economic stalemate but he acted. He convened a budget summit at Andrews AFB which, at great political cost to him within his own party, resulted in a bi-partisan package that set us on a long-term path that ultimately helped produce surpluses rather than deficits. That was leadership. President Obama isn’t running for another term – he should expend every bit of his political capital to show leadership in bringing leaders from both parties together to make the hard economic choices, which must involve compromise and sacrifice on his part as well as theirs.
In the Cold War, the premise of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was that the consequences of a nuclear attack were so abhorrent to both the Soviets and the U.S. that neither would actually initiate such an exchange; they’d back away before getting to the brink. In hindsight, wise leaders in both nations knew that even though they might talk tough, they had to learn to coexist or they would destroy each other.
I look at Washington today, and realize it needs to learn the same lesson – repeated brinkmanship in an effort to force the other party to capitulate is destroying us. Politicians need to remember they have been elected to be public servants – to actually fulfill the duties of an office – not to serve a two, four or six-year term as a politician. Once elections are over and they are sworn in, they need to talk to each other, work together and most of all govern. If not, a pox on them all – vote them all out and let’s start over.
Telos CEO John Wood blogs about business, education, and the values that guide us.