US democracy’s latest failure


US voters chose their Congressmen to govern their country, not to drive it to the brink of bankruptcy and effectively close down all but the most essential government agencies. They, therefore, have every right to be extremely angry with their legislators at their latest failure to do their job by refusing to pass a federal budget and thus forcing a widespread government shutdown.

What is so extraordinary about this new imbroglio is that it is a reenactment of precisely the same incompetence on Capitol Hill that caused the silent majority of US voters to turn in fury and despair to the outsider Donald Trump. He promised to “drain” the political swamp in Washington. That swamp is currently once more brimming over.

Democrats in the Senate have refused to back the budget unless Trump abandons part of the immigration clampdown on which he was elected to office. Specifically, the president is seeking to deport 700,000 undocumented immigrants who entered the US as children. Democrats in the upper chamber have blocked the budget. Even though the Republicans with 51 senators hold the majority in the 100-member body, the budget requires the approval of 60 senators.

As the deadline for agreement approached at the weekend, the same old politicking went on with Democrat leaders seeking to horse trade away the expulsion of the illegals, even, it was reported, offering to back the president’s promised wall along the border with Mexico. But the President and the Republicans refused to budge. Thus the most powerful and prosperous nation on the planet is suddenly deprived of many of the key levers of normal government.

Democrat legislators will argue that they are merely representing the views of the voters who sent them to Washington. They will say that politically, America is deeply polarized. The division of legislative power on Capitol Hill reflects that profound split. But this is to ignore one of the principles of representative government as pursued in democracies elsewhere around the world. There, whoever wins a majority, however small, gets to run a country. Political parties that lose are obliged to go into opposition, where they will use their voice in the legislature, to challenge and test government policies. But any challenge is not generally supposed to frustrate the implementation of a policy. In, for instance, a European parliament, if a government loses its majority because some of its own legislators side with the opposition, that government is forced to call a vote of confidence. If it loses that as well, then a new election is forced.

That is not the way the US system works. There is a separation of powers between the Presidency as the executive, Congress and the judiciary. The Founding Fathers thus sought to establish a system of checks and balances on the business of government. But the men who wrote the US Constitution surely never imagined that the checks they put in place should ever be used to bring the whole machinery of government to a grinding halt.

The latest failure of America’s elected representatives to lower their own political banners before the wider interests of their country will only reinforce President Trump. Even those Democrats who are seized with an insane and visceral hatred of their president must surely see how shameful it is for their party to hobble the US government.