Government shutdown shows need for change

Zoha Naqwi, Contributor

Recently, the Federal Government of the United States experienced the longest shutdown in history. President Trump announced the partial shutdown on Dec. 22, which affected about a quarter of the Federal Government (about 800,000 federal employees did not receive a salary during the shutdown).

We know that the National Park Service closed most of the national parks, meaning restrooms were not cleaned, and trash was piling up. This sounds bad, but not too alarming because federal employees performing “essential jobs” are not allowed to leave even if they are not paid. If all the unpaid federal employees were to stop working, the country would indeed be thrown into a chaos. Without air traffic controllers and security staff at the airports, commercial airlines will cancel all domestic and international flights, causing disastrous consequences for businesses and tourism. The domino effect of abrupt ending of air transport would be felt severely throughout the country. The shutdown is over a conflict concerning the security of the southern border.

We cannot thank the essential federal employees enough for keeping the country running while they have missed the first and second paycheck of 2019. We wonder why these dedicated employees have to suffer income disruptions so often. In most democracies, the legislative branch prepares and approves the government budget. Generally, a simple majority in the Parliament is adequate to resolve any spending conflicts.

In the United States, we have a presidential system of the government where the elected president serves as the Head of the Executive branch. The other powerful person is the Speaker of the Congress who leads the Legislative branch. Our Constitution provides mechanisms to resolve the conflicts between these two powerful authorities. The President has the power to veto a bill that Congress passes, and the Congress has the power to override the veto if there is overwhelming support for the bill. These measures work effectively, and we do not hear much about standoff over a bill. However, reconciliation between the Executive and the Legislative branch over the budget is a different matter.

Preparation and approval of the budget is a complex process that counts on the good judgement and sense of responsibility among the leaders in both the branches of the government. Conflicts are expected to be resolved through discussion and commonsense in a timely manner instead of a veto/veto-override mechanism. Apparently, this expectation is failing most severely now more than ever before. The two branches of the government have some agreement over the federal budget, yet hundreds of thousands of the federal employees are going without pay.

The essential question for the nation today is, should we consider this unusual shutdown as an aberration that happens rarely and does not require any fundamental change in the way we run the government? Or should we consider it an erosion of the political system that requires new rulemaking to keep the government functional?

This article was originally published in the Feb. 2, 2019 issue.