WHIPPLE: A nonexistent legislature

Nobody knows what a perfect legislature looks like. Tackling the question in the Politics, Aristotle prefaces it with the caveat, “Well, that’s a toughie, isn’t it?” You could take Directed Studies a thousand times, do all the reading, and watch CNN between seminars, but you still wouldn’t have an answer. Nobody ever will. But we do know one thing: it sure as hell looks nothing like this. Nothing like what’s happening in Washington right now, and nothing like what’s happening here in New Haven as a result.

I’m not particularly qualified to write about this. I’m just a citizen and a voter who takes himself too seriously. But in shutting down the government rather than compromising, and in pursuing political gain at the expense of popular consent, Congress screwed us all. Anyone could write this column.

Perhaps you haven’t heard, but as of Tuesday, we don’t have a government. It’s been shut down indefinitely while Congress foams at the mouth over the Affordable Care Act, which depending on who you ask is either largely OK or basically Nazism. The Republican House refused to fund the government without also defunding Obamacare, to which the Democratic Majority Leader literally replied, “Grow up.” With neither side willing to budge and the federal government out of cash, at 12:01 on Tuesday morning, Washington, D.C., and federal agencies around the country closed their doors until further notice.

We get it: people disagree. This is an inevitable and important feature of government and a society. No party system that isn’t roughly evenly matched could survive. People have literally been beaten on the floor of the Senate before. But as a U.S. congressman, even if you take issue with the nation’s trajectory, even if you have the votes in Congress to make your demands heard, there are better ways to go about expressing that than making American people suffer to prove a point. You wouldn’t crash your car because you didn’t like your passengers’ music selection. There are alternatives to uncompromising militancy, but opponents of the ACA (read: ultraconservative Republicans) don’t seem to care.

Why do we expect our representatives not to crash the car if they don’t like the music? Because we require and assume a modicum of common decency and empathy, a refusal to sacrifice the country in a disingenuous attempt to better it.

For those not living on Capitol Hill, this isn’t a game of political chicken. Shutting down the government isn’t just a news item for Connecticut’s roughly 9,000 now-furloughed federal employees. It doesn’t seem much to ask that even if a representative thinks mainly of his electorate, he keep some corner of his conscience reserved for the other, say, 299 million people living in America. Just because they aren’t voting for him doesn’t mean a Congressman from Arizona should entirely ignore the needs of New Haven’s 36,210 food stamp recipients, whose benefits might begin to waver if the shutdown persists. Connecticut’s slow economic recovery, having gained back half of the 120,000 jobs lost, is jeopardized as well. The consequences of this political staring contest are real, and dire, and you don’t have to look far to see them. New Haven, the state of Connecticut and the country at large are innocent bystanders, but all the more vulnerable for it.

The most damning episode of this whole sorry saga is one that’s been surprisingly underplayed. The Senate, before the shutdown, sent the House a temporary spending bill that would have kept the government running while the debate over the ACA continued. But Speaker John Boehner didn’t even let it go to a vote — he tabled it because it was almost certain to pass with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

This isn’t gridlock; it’s manipulation. This isn’t the American electorate split down the middle; it’s a cadre of lawmakers using the technicalities of their positions to subvert the popular will. It’s politics before people.

Nobody benefits from a government shutdown, not even the constituents of the congressmen behind the whole escapade. Nobody wants a shutdown, either: an overwhelming majority of Americans want politicians to give ground rather than dig in. Obviously, concern for the nation’s welfare hasn’t been the flavor of the week in Washington, because if it were, we would have a government right now. Instead, we have John Boehner and Ted Cruz invoking “the American people” while refusing to listen to them. By taking the country hostage in pursuit of a political pipedream while preventing a decisive vote, Congress has shown its true colors.

And so even as Congress continues to get paid to not do its job, over a million “essential” federal employees are legally required to report to work — without pay. Callous thoughtlessness and hypocrisy like this from the people running our country almost defies words. But with a Congress that cares more about staying in power than using it well, that’s par for the course.

David Whipple is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at david.whipple@yale.edu.

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