Throughout recorded history, ruling governments that have failed the people they rule over have suffered a similar fate. In one way or another, either through military coups, mass rebellions of the citizenry, newly enacted constitutions, or new orders imposed by a conquering nation, they have ceased to exist.
In the United States, no version of that kind of scenario has ever been seriously considered. Instead, the thought has always been that with our form of government—a democratic republic—any serious malfunction in any of the government’s three branches would be corrected by the other two. That, at least, was thought to be the beauty of our Constitution, which establishes three co-equal branches with three different functions: the Congress, which enacts the laws; the Executive, which enforces the laws; and the Judiciary, which interprets the laws and passes judgment on whether they are constitutional.
And for over 200 years, the system envisioned in our Constitution by the founders, including the “great compromise” of the bicameral legislative branch with one House populated with proportional representation and the other limited to two representatives (Senators) from each of the several states, has worked well. Well enough, at least, to provide for the development of a system of laws that have ensured the continued existence of the country.
We have survived threats from outside our borders, have endured and sustained ourselves through military conflicts and world wars, have withstood and recovered from economic crises, have overcome an attempted secession by a sizeable number of states, and have generally prospered from one generation to the next to become, in the third century of our existence, the most successful governmental experiment in the annals of human existence.
Until now, that is. What is happening now in the halls of the nation’s legislative bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate, and in the nation’s executive branch, the Presidency, is sufficiently dysfunctional as to suggest a need for major reformation, if not complete destruction, of the grand design that emerged from the last Constitutional Convention the country had in 1787.
Tear down the form of government that the founders created so masterfully and perfectly? Replace it with something else? Yes, it sounds extreme, and indeed, it would be. But let’s consider what is happening right before our eyes this month in the nation’s capital.
There, the Congress, charged with the responsibility of passing a budget that will provide for the funds to operate those functions that fall to the government under our enacted laws, has not only failed to provide such a budget, but has, by its failure, caused the government to shut down. In other words, in its most basic responsibility, to keep the doors of the government open, the Congress has been unable to function. As a result, all but the most vital of government activities (supporting our troops on the battlefield, maintaining security on our borders and in our ports, and providing for the continued commerce and trade with other nations) have effectively been shut down.
National parks are closed. Government offices are barren of workers. Many government employees are either not working (furloughed) or are working without pay. Social security checks are still being mailed, but enrolling in the system (unless you do it online) would be problematic. In essence, we are a country without a functioning government.
Think about that last sentence for a moment. Now think about how that fact came to be. It didn’t occur because of some “act of God,” like being struck by an asteroid or a comet. It didn’t occur because of an invasion by a foreign country or because of a massive uprising by the populace or because the military conducted a coup and threw out the existing leaders and declared the constitution null and void.
It has occurred because the Congress has been unable and unwilling to meet its responsibility and pass a budget and has also been unwilling to fund the operations of the government with a temporary continuing resolution. One branch of the government, in other words, has proved itself to be dysfunctional.
But that’s just the start. The real problem, as if the upheaval caused by a long run of a government shutdown wouldn’t be bad enough, is still on the horizon.
Later this month, the government will run out of money. That is to say, it will no longer have enough money to pay all of its bills. That catastrophe will also not be caused by external forces. It will occur because the Congress will refuse to raise the debt ceiling—the amount of indebtedness the country is allowed by law to have on its books. By not authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling, the Congress will cause the United States to default on its payments, either to lenders (bond holders and other investors in the U.S. dollar), or to citizens entitled to payments (i.e., Social Security recipients), or to those who have contracted with the government (i.e., private businesses), or to those who receive aid from the government (foreign countries and citizens who are disabled or unemployed or otherwise in need), or to any combination of the above.
Now, let’s think about this possibility for a minute. What kind of countries go through this kind of situation, with their government essentially shut down and with no funds to pay existing debts and obligations? And the answer is third world countries that are so impoverished that they are essentially destitute and countries whose governments have become so dysfunctional that they have lost the right to continue in existence.
Such countries ultimately suffer revolutions or coups or are taken over by other countries that then subjugate their citizens to an entirely new order.
The United States would never be such a country. Its government would never stop functioning and would certainly never default on its existing indebtedness.
It wouldn’t, but it is. And unless the members of Congress start to act responsibly and do so quickly, the question of what to do with a government that stops functioning may have to be asked and answered.