Congress: The crisis machine

By Donna Brazile

NEA Columnist

There isn't an American family that's unaware that a dependable, sustained income is essential for their security and stability. Without it, families lurch from crisis to crisis, unable to plan for a future they can't fund, unable even to have the luxury of thinking of planning, since their energies are consumed with just staying afloat.

Mothers and fathers know the wear and tear that economic insecurity has on their children, and on themselves. Even a chronically poor family depends on its meager wages being consistent.

Our American family, this nation, has been in a dysfunctional mode since 1981 when the first full government shutdown occurred. Since then, we've had 11 additional shutdowns. Eleven times we've endured Congress withholding monies to run the government -- usually over disputes about what to spend the most money on.

There have been times when we faced a grinding halt to the government over an ideological issue. This last week, a shutdown attempt was contrived over suspect, clandestine videos that no court likely would even consider admitting as evidence, since the uncut, unedited, versions aren't available. Last year, Republicans sought to shut down our Department of Homeland Security after the Obama administration signaled it would temporarily halt the deportation of undocumented parents with dependent American children.



Rather than pass a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill drafted by two current GOP presidential candidates, they sought to place blame on the president and punish him for acting to address a very challenging crisis.

If your own family couldn't agree where to spend your income at home, you'd have to be an idiot to cut off that income altogether. And a spouse who repeatedly created an economic crisis to force the other into concessions would provide grounds for divorce.

Nevertheless, that's what the Republican leadership has been doing for the last seven years. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the retiring House Speaker John Boehner repeatedly manufactured and/or permitted crises that were designed to extract budget or ideological concessions from the Obama administration.

I learned that we've suffered through manufactured crises over a "fiscal cliff" or a shutdown about three times a year since 2011. Shutdowns began under Ronald Reagan; there were eight shutdowns during his two terms. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each faced at least one shutdown, not to mention uncounted "to the brink" efforts that were averted.

A nonpartisan organization, Partnership for Public Service, released a thorough study this month on the effect government shutdowns have on the government itself. Merely the threat of a shutdown has effects as adverse as actual shutdowns, which are devastating.

Bright, talented young people are being driven away from seeking jobs with the government. They see no money to hire them, no guarantee of a consistent paycheck if they are hired and an unstable work atmosphere where their talents cannot flourish.

I once read an account of a problem an English orphanage had during World War II in getting newly arrived children, parentless by bombings, to sleep. Finally, someone hit upon an idea. She gave each child a slice of bread to take to bed. With the guarantee they'd eat, the children fell asleep.

Adults, subjected to uncertainties, will react in ways similar to the wartime orphans. We've subjected millions of government employees to years-long roller coaster rides in their professional and personal lives, because Republican politicians unnecessarily manufactured economic catastrophes in the Congress.

McConnell promised after the last election that there would be no more government shutdowns. But, we see that's not good enough. We continue to have to deal every few months with the uncertainties, and the debilitating effects, that threats alone produce.

Boehner resigned as speaker, by his own account, after a visit by five conservative members of the House. Conservatives are proud of that. But for the rest of us, it's one more public servant who was driven away by an uncompromising party faction.

It is fair to ask: If the Republican Party cannot govern itself, if its leaders cannot stop these havoc-wreaking threats, how can we entrust them with governing the country?

The Partnership of Public Service interviewed Linda Gustitus, a veteran aide to former Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. She said that while there has always been "distance" between Congress and the executive branch, matters have spiraled downhill. Today, she said, there is "an unwillingness to have a dialogue and engage in problem-solving."

Pope Francis, in his address to Congress, repeatedly advocated dialogue. When "the path of dialogue" is resumed, he said, "new opportunities open up for all."

Almost a week to the day of Pope Francis' address, Republicans were back at work refusing to dialogue, hoping instead to force compliance by another threat -- yet another shutdown.

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