Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shutdowns and Sillypants (and the Statler Brothers)

(The Statler Brothers, from their website)

Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C., visiting our Washington Term students. On a Saturday afternoon walk along the Capitol Mall, my thoughts turned as they inevitably do to the Statler Brothers. The Statler Brothers were a top country-and-western group with a string of hits in the late 1960s and 1970s. Along with tight harmonies they exuded an old fashioned "aw shucks" attitude which was a powerful counterpoint to a rather cynical time. One of their less-well-remembered songs, but one that always comes up on the jukebox in my head when I'm touring Washington, is "Nothing as Original as You." The singer tours the sites of D.C., and finds it all amazing... but of course not quite as amazing as his lover back home.

Sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C.
Looking out my window at the miles of history
Somewhere in the skyline is the Capitol Dome
And the White House that just a few men have called home

The song was released in 1978 or '79, but there's nothing in here about the Carter administration, or Watergate, or the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Public approval of both President and Congress were at then-historic lows, but the singer found time to be impressed by all the physical manifestations of American history on view.

And today I saw the first airplane that flew
Saw a dinosaur, and a space module too
Got lost seven times on Pennsylvania Avenue
But even here there's nothing as original as you

It's those physical manifestations of American history that distinguish Washington as a place. This remains true in spite of the partial government shutdown, which was going strong while I was there and is still going as I write this. I was neither there expecting to show my children the wonders of Air and Space, nor was I a resident either anxious about the furloughs or guiltily enjoying a suddenly-easier commute. Washington was Washington, as far as I could see. The most immediate physical impression was that it was stiflingly hot.

Part of Washington is the familiar sites, like the Capitol...

...or Union Station

But what keeps me gawking are not the famous sites but the less-well-known ones, popping up in unexpected places. This is the Victims of Communism memorial, a couple blocks from my hotel.

Last year I found Daniel Webster...

...and took this selfie with former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas:

There's the Old Stone House in Georgetown, the oldest structure in the city...

...and randomly-appearing embassies of countries like Ukraine

I saw a place where George Washington built two cabins in 1798. And on, and on. It may be un-academic to get too gushy about the history here, but it's important to remember this country was founded on ideals, and the story of America has been the struggle to make those ideals reality. All these historical impressions put the current shutdown in a sad perspective.

It is pretty clearly Republicans in Congress who chose the shutdown tactic. Either side could, of course, end the shutdown by making major concessions, but it was congressional Republicans who eschewed a conference committee over the budget, presumably because they thought they could get a better deal at or after the deadline (Wasson). It was congressional Republicans who opted to make their stand, not on a dispute about the budget itself, but on trying to repeal health care legislation they famously dislike (Young and Sanchez). Repealing the health care reform having been an overreach (York), it is now congressional Republicans who are trying to get something out of this, if not delaying or scaling back health care, then maybe some cuts in entitlements. [BN: Boy oh boy, do we need entitlement reform. But it should be seriously considered, not an afterthought at gunpoint.] Maybe take the heat off by passing a continuing resolution to cover only photogenic parts of government, like veterans' affairs and national parks.

House Republican leadership has thus far been resistant to allow a vote on the continuing resolution passed by the Senate, which could draw enough Republican votes in the House to become law. Their side of the shutdown is now about needing to get something to justify the effort they've gone to and the pain that's caused. Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-Indiana) was unusually inelegant when he told the Washington Examiner, "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is" (Cillizza). But less tone-deaf Republicans are saying it is President Obama who needs to compromise, which means what? It's up to him to find a Republican demand he can give in to?

Republicans say they're acting on principle, and I'll grant that. There are ways of pursuing those principles, though, without tearing the building down and threatening the economy. You could try to do better in next year's Senate elections, and support presidential candidates in 2016 who will change policy. You could try to craft legislative changes that would win support from the Senate. You could hope public opinion will turn against the Democrats, and capitalize on that. You could work through state governments and lobby federal agencies to affect implementation. You could come up with your own policy. (Just sayin'.) Any of these steps would honor your supporters as well as the long American project that we are now part of, and to which all those memorials and plaques in Washington testify.

Meanwhile, the shutdown continues, but on a hot Saturday afternoon I had to look for signs of it. This is what those signs looked like...

...at the National Postal Museum...

...the sculpture garden...

...and the mall itself.

Note the energetic soccer game going beyond the little barrier. While I passed by, a man in a National Parks Service vehicle drove by, paused, and drove on.

People gathered on the steps of the Air and Space Museum, though of course they couldn't go in.

The Washington Monument was closed, but that was a long-term closure for repairs. How can we play the Washington Monument Game if the Washington Monument itself is offline?

There was even a chain across the gate to the playground at Stanton Park near Capitol Hill.

Of course the fence is only about two feet high so it was easy to get in anyhow. When one young girl headed for the gate, her mother reminded her the gate was chained closed. "Mommy has to lift you over the fence, because some people are being sillypants." "Me!" the girl announced. "Well, some other people, down the street," Mom answered.

[UPDATE 10/10/13: A list, courtesy of the Washington Post, of previous government shutdowns due to budget stalemates: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/25/here-is-every-previous-government-shutdown-why-they-happened-and-how-they-ended/. Thanks to Lwin Chan Kyaw for the link. Note that most of these were of extremely brief duration if they were even noticeable at all.]

Dan Balz, "The Shrinking Middle Ground," Washington Post, 6 October 2013, A1 & 8 [on congressional polarization]

Jonathan Chait, "How Republicans Failed to Understand the Democrats' Debt-Ceiling Logic," New York, 6 October 2013, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/10/debt-ceiling-and-the-conservative-bubble.html
[institutional stakes in this stalemate]

Chris Cillizza, "Worst Week in Washington," The Washington Post, 6 October 2013, B2.

Derek Thompson, "Why the Government Shutdown Isn't Anywhere Near Over--in 1 Graph," The Atlantic, 7 October 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/10/why-the-government-shutdown-isnt-anywhere-near-over-in-1-graph/280359/ [poll showing partisan polarization on the shutdown]

Erik Wasson, "GOP Blocks Reid from Creating Conference Committee on Budget," The Hill, 23 April 2013, http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/budget/295477-reid-to-seek-consent-to-convene-budget-conference- [Republicans blocked conference committee over budget in April]

Byron York, "GOP Congressman: We Stumbled into War over Obamacare," Washington Examiner, 6 October 2013, http://washingtonexaminer.com/gop-congressman-we-stumbled-into-war-over-obamacare/article/2536874 [thoughtful Republican criticizes his leadership as well as the Democratic response]

Kerry Young and Humberto Sanchez, "GOP Divided Over Spending Plans," CQ Weekly, 16 September 2013, http://www.cq.com/doc/weeklyreport-4343587?wr=RDlYTlRja3lSajVPdC1raFVHdTFKZw [Republican leadership plan to prevent shutdown is blocked by their own members]

1 comment:

  1. Very good observations that get to the heart of our great government which is the only thing that thrusts America on the global scene and is now being threatened by a bunch of vandals who hate the federal government and want it reduced to ineffectiveness.


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