The answer to government shutdown is less federal power, not more

In the wake of the now five-day long federal government partial shutdown, center-left pundits have wasted no time calling for drastic changes to the republic.

In the Washington Post, Dylan Matthews openly called for fascism:

Max Weber, in conversation with Gen. Erich Ludendorff, advanced my personal favorite theory of democracy: “In a democracy the people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’ ” People and party are then no longer free to interfere in his business.

Max Fisher, also in the Post, called for monarchy:

You might find yourself wishing that the United States could follow Australia’s example: Fire everyone in Congress, hold snap elections next month and restart from scratch. But we can’t, because we haven’t recognized the British monarchy or had a London-appointed governor -general in more than two centuries. Maybe, if we ask nicely, Britain will take us back?

The New Republic suggested the President dissolve Congress and then attack it:

Almost exactly 20 years ago, he dissolved parliament. The vice president and the speaker of the parliament dissolved Yeltsin’s presidency, and holed up with their supporters in the parliament’s headquarters, now known as “the White House.”

Then Yeltsin [sent in the tanks].

It should not be surprising that progressive and statists default to a statist solution to a federal problem. However, when the centralization of power in the federal government, especially the presidency, has grown dramatically over the last century, calls for more centralized power to solve the problems it creates should hardly be taken seriously. One does not succeed in herding cats by acquiring more or stronger cats. “But our dictatorship would be a benevolent one, wielding unchecked power to help people!” Yes, that’s literally how they all start…

It should also be no surprise that libertarians would call for a decentralized solution. However, since we’ve never really given it a shot, one might be worth looking into. Maybe instead of giving Washington or the President more power to solve these rare impasses, we should give them less, to prevent them from happening in the first place and minimizing the negative consequences when they do.

We tried a purposefully weak central government in the Articles of Confederation. It didn’t work in the 18th Century (though in a hyper-connected 21st, who’s to say it wouldn’t?). For the last hundred years we’ve tried a stronger and stronger central government. It hasn’t worked well either. Most pundits try to blame this shutdown and other constitutional gridlock on partisanship, polarization, and more specifically, gerrymandering.

They argue or imply that we’d have no problems with one-party rule, two parties of centrists, or bluntly, that it’s just those extremist Republicans. This completely ignores history. There have been 18 partial shutdowns of the federal government, all since 1976. Five of them occurred when Democrats controlled the House, Senate, and White House. Five more occurred when the same party controlled both House and Senate. Of the 18, only seven have been between opposing houses of Congress.

Even the history of Obamacare itself belies the partisanship canard. When President Obama took office in 2009, he had a Democratic supermajority in the Senate capable of passing anything over minority filibuster and a Democratic majority in the House. His initial promises of a sweeping health care plan seemed unstoppable.

But reality waxed as his first year waned with no bill passed. Concessions had to be made, the public option was removed, deals had to be cut, and in the end, the unread 2000-page monstrosity was passed by a razor-thin 219-212 vote in the House (all Republicans and 34 Democrats voting against). It wasn’t partisanship that made those Democrats vote against the President’s bill, nor was it polarization. It was a simple difference of opinion. In a constitutional republic, differences of opinion should lead to an impasse, or at least compromise, not draconian statist machinations to prevent them.

So why not try federalism? Our Constitution was setup to work this way but has been woefully misused since the Progressive Era of the early 20th Century.  The beauty of a strong 10th Amendment, with only the delegated powers allowed to Congress and the President, and the rest sent back to the States and the people, is that it would minimize both conflict and dependency, the two primary issues with this situation.

If fewer agenda items were handled by Washington, there would be fewer chances for divisive disagreement, legislative deadlock, and ultimately government shutdown. Fewer powers in the federal government would also mean fewer services provided by it, and in the rare case of a shutdown, fewer subsequent hardships created.

For example, if there were no national parks, but all state parks instead, they would all be open right now. If there weren’t four and a half million federal employees, but that many (or probably fewer) dispersed throughout the state governments, there wouldn’t be nearly a million of them not working or working for delayed in the interim. If the states funded WIC and other welfare programs themselves, there might be fewer people on them and fewer going without assistance right now because of the shutdown.

Thomas Jefferson, the Apostle of Democracy, said it best in a letter to Judge William Johnson of South Carolina in 1823:

I answer by asking if a single state of the Union would have agreed to the constitution had it given all powers to the General government?

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