We are now entering day three of the first government shutdown in 17 years. There are certainly unique factors at play here — namely, the end of the fiscal year coinciding with the launch of the president's signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act.
But are there inherent flaws in the American political system that make shutdowns inevitable? Are we going to have to go through this again?
Possibly. Washington has repeatedly flirted with going off the fiscal cliff over the last few years, and there are signs that this is the new normal. Drastic measures to solve our perpetually dysfunctional system are being discussed, though not altogether seriously. With that caveat in mind, here are five extreme ideas, in order of increasing radicalism, for preventing the next shutdown:
1. Pay Republicans to go Bloomberg
As The Week's Jon Terbush points out, CEOs from major banks have criticized the policies of the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party and allied themselves with President Obama. What if they went one step further and actually started enticing pro-business Republicans to break with their party and become independents?
That is the (albeit unlikely) scenario put forth by liberal New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait. His idea is for moderate Republicans, constantly under threat from the Tea Party, to take cash from big business and strike out on their own. The challenges, obviously, would be many:
Business would have to front huge money to support these members, who would need to be persuaded that running as independents offers them a safer career path than staying under the Republican banner. Surviving primary challenges would surely be impossible — they'd need to rebrand themselves as independents, backed by big outside money. (Michael Bloomberg?)
The bloc of defecting moderates would not govern the way Democrats would govern. But they would end the era of crisis. [New York Magazine]
"Sadly," Chait writes, it's "easier to imagine this happening after the disaster of a debt-ceiling breach than before," meaning it would take some serious economic pain to cause Republicans to defect.
2. Make Washington even more partisan
There aren't many people who would argue that Washington isn't partisan enough — except for the New Republic's Mark Schmitt. By partisan, he means caring about the long-term health of the political party over short-term, more immediate concerns (like, for instance, being ousted by a more conservative challenger in a primary).
Schmitt points out that groups like the Club for Growth, a vital source of funds for Tea Party Republicans, have replaced the old system where the party establishment ran things. That, he argues, is dangerous for the GOP and for American politics in general:
Cruz, the Koches, Sheldon Adelson, DeMint, and even Paul Ryan should be seen as something like the corporate raiders of American politics. They are trying to extract maximum value from their current position in the system, with little regard to the long-term future of the Republican Party and its shrinking demographic base, or for the system in which it operates.
That's something very different from partisanship, and a little bit more partisanship, in the sense of a concern for the future of the party, might actually be the only cure for the current mania. [New Republic]
Nobody wants to return to the days when candidates were chosen in smoke-filled back rooms. But limiting the power of outside groups and giving more power to the parties could, he argues, allow lawmakers to spend more time thinking about the future instead of constantly looking over their shoulders.
3. Make Congress even larger
House Republicans increasingly represent safe districts where the only concern is being challenged by a more conservative Republican. That gives them very little incentive to appeal to moderates — meaning they fight only for the concerns of their most radical constituents.
The solution, according to FairVote's Rob Richie, is to switch to fair representation voting, where districts are represented by three to five people instead of just one. That would give moderates more of a voice in solidly Democratic or Republican districts and create parties that are "far less rigid," he argues:
In each multi-member 'super district,' there would be authentic representation of not only the left and right but also the center of that district's ideological spectrum. Most districts would have at least one member with an electoral incentive to appeal to moderation and seek compromise. The left and right would have their champions too, of course, but only in proportion to their numbers. [Huffington Post]
4. Create a 'nuclear option'
In 1975, Australia experienced its own government shutdown. So what did Governor General John Kerr, the queen's unelected representative, end up doing?
He cleaned house. Using what the Australians call the "nuclear option," he dismissed the prime minister, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The replacement prime minister passed a new spending bill, and the Australian people elected new representatives. Australia hasn't had a shutdown since then.
No one is arguing that the U.S. should join the commonwealth, but what if the president had the power to call an election in a time of crisis? David Smith, a lecturer in American politics and foreign policy at Sydney University in Australia, tells the Christian Science Monitor:
"If there was a mechanism like double dissolution in Australia, this budget crisis would be resolved a lot more quickly because there would be this 'nuclear option.' If the president could dissolve the legislature and go to an election, that’s exactly what Obama would be threatening to do at this point." [Christian Science Monitor]
5. Change the Constitution
The Constitution has "taken on a Holy Scripture-like role in American political debate," writes The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews, noting that the United States is "basically the only country that does this."
"Angela Merkel," Matthews writes, "does not stay awake at night asking herself, 'What would Bismarck do?'"
His suggestion for solving the current crisis in Washington: Do as the Europeans do. The U.K., for example, has a parliamentary system where the executive and legislative branches are merged. In the United States, they are separate. This, according to Matthews, makes it hard to:
A) Identify who, exactly, is responsible for poor management of the economy and replace them.
B) Give elected officials enough power to effectively change the course of the economy.
Basically, he writes, presidential systems like ours don't give the president, House, or Senate "formal supremacy over the others" and no "'tie-breakers' in case we're in danger of shutting down the government or defaulting on our debts." He contrasts that with the U.K.:
David Cameron and George Osborne have complete control over the government's fiscal policy lever, through the coalition's total control over the budget and tax rates ... So when Britons go to the polls and judge Cameron and Osborne (and their Liberal Democrat coalition-mates) on their economic management, they'll be holding accountable the people who are in fact responsible for their economic situation.
That doesn't happen in the United States. In 2010 the economy was garbage, so, as political science would predict, the American people punished the party in power, the Democrats. But the diffusion of power throughout the political system made it impossible to know for sure who was responsible for the state of the economy. [Washington Post]