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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Douglas: Shut Down

For at least the 18th time in the past 4 decades, we’re experiencing a government shutdown because Congress has failed to approve a budget. As a result, all but essential Federal employees are not on the job.

But unless you’re planning a visit to a national park or a burial at Arlington, you may not notice. Our armed forces are still protecting us, airplanes are flying , and Social Security benefits continue to be paid. In fact, when one late-night talk show host asked his audience if anyone was concerned about the shutdown - n o one was.

Eventually the standoff will be resolved. Either someone will blink or they’ll reach a compromise. But until then, there will be varying levels of delay and inconvenience. There’s an economic impact as well: fewer Federal employees with less disposable income will have a ripple effect on consumer spending and employment. We’re still recovering from the Great Recession and this won’t help.

And America has greater problems on the horizon. We’ll soon reach our debt ceiling. With no further authority to borrow, the Treasury won’t be able to pay the government’s bills. We lost our coveted AAA bond rating last year and further downgrades could follow. Refusing to raise the level won’t lower spending, since it reflects commitments already made, but it’s understandable that those who are working to reduce the Federal budget’s growth are trying to use the debt deadline as leverage to do so. The President’s credibility on this matter is limited, because, as a senator, he resisted his predecessor’s proposals to raise the debt ceiling. Now the shoe’s on the other foot.

But in addition to a financial crisis, we’re also dealing with a political crisis. Our divided government has become so polarized that little can be accomplished, and each party blames the other. I’d say they’re both right, but this continued gridlock is unacceptable. As former Senator Olympia Snowe wrote in her recent memoir, ‘our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation, and honor in consensus-building, but also political reward for following those tenets.’

We’re certainly not there right now: House Republicans have voted dozens of times in a quixotic attempt to derail the new health care law. On the other hand, the President has delayed several elements on his own and the Democratic Senate has already voted to repeal a tax on medical devices, another piece of the Act. Surely there’s room to reach some common ground.

In the end, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly 2 centuries ago, we get the government we deserve. Americans need to insist that folks in Washington of all political persuasions reject their narrow partisanship and work together. That means yielding on some strongly held beliefs, but what choice is there? Most Congressional seats are safe and most who hold them are more concerned about a primary challenge than a victory by the other party. They need to compromise in the national interest, get the government running again and act like the leaders they’re supposed to be.

Jim Douglas, a former governor of Vermont, is an executive in residence at Middlebury College.
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