Do you even remember the first time Republicans threatened to shut down the government? (The first time, that is, since then-Speaker Newt Gingrich followed through on his promise in 1995 with disastrous political consequences?) Unless you’re a serious political junkie, you probably don’t remember (it was 2010, though, for the record).
But then there was the one in 2011, the one in 2011 and the other one in 2011, and then the fights about the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff and now the sequester — and who can keep track anymore? Certainly not the constituents who elected people to Congress to ostensibly do something other than constantly threaten one another with a shutdown of the institution they supposedly serve in.
So when polls show that Congress has an approval rating of 14 percent (and that roaches and Nickelback have more fans), it shouldn’t come as any surprise (nor should the fact that it reached that floor after the ultimately snooze-inducing fiscal cliff brinksmanship over the holidays). The latest fight — over what is termed “sequester” inside the Beltway and which politicos and reporters alike have repeated ad infinitum without much explanation to their constituents and readers — is in fact just another continuation of the ongoing budget fights over which Republicans and Democrats have threatened government shutdowns for more than two years.
Eighteen months ago, after months of threats and posturing, President Obama suggested and Congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to create a magical deadline to get their shit together or else be forced to explain a rash of immediate spending cuts to the American people. Both sides agreed to the deal, figuring that the other would face a humiliating defeat in the 2012 elections; instead, the elections insured a continuation of the dysfunctional status quo and the continued unwillingness of anyone to behave like a political leader rather than a political brawler.
And yet, somehow, very few people outside the echo chamber can be forced to care. Why? Because we’ve all seen this little one-act play out before, enough times that it’s hard to take it seriously. There’s no dramatic filibuster where a Senator stands for hours reading from a cookbook or The Federalist Papers, no video footage of GSA workers being locked out of their offices or postal sorting machines sitting idle, no actual effect on anyone’s day-to-day life, the political rhetoric on the Hill or the situation of the federal budget. We all assume that they’ll sit around pointing fingers and calling one another names like a bunch of schoolkids until the very last minute, when they’ll hammer out another reasonably foolish compromise that keeps the government open for another six months without solving the fundamental dispute, pat themselves on the back and go back to naming post offices and arguing about gun control and trying to land tortured one-liners on the Sunday talk shows until they’re forced to repeat the posturing all over again.
It’s tiresome, it’s foolish, it’s (deliberately, one starts to assume) difficult for most Americans to follow, let alone care about, and it does nothing to solve any of the varying problems identified as such for either side. And the more they do it, they more they’ll earn the disapproval and disrespect of Americans on all sides of the political spectrum.