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US shutdown erodes confidence in government

Public approval of the US Congress drops to a record low as the government shut-down continues.

Last Modified: 08 Oct 2013 10:04
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This is the first time the US government has shut-down since 1996 [EPA]

Washington DC - On the evening of September 30, as the day's last rays of sunlight faded behind the Capitol's dome, 59-year-old plumber Jerry Whitters took one final cigarette break. His employer, the federal government, was about to be shut down, and he would soon be sent home without pay.

Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to back a budget that did not cut funding for President Barack Obama's health care law, a demand that the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected.

As a result, Whitters and nearly 800,000 other federal workers were furloughed on October 1. Regulatory agencies were forced to curtail their activities, and scores of national parks were closed.

"I think it stinks, to tell you the truth. I'm in favour of Republicans, but we have to cut our losses somewhere," Whitters told Al Jazeera between swigs of coffee and drags on his cigarette.

He scoffed when asked whether he feels represented in Congress. "Oh Christ, no. It's individualism, not caring about people so much. It's not compromise. I'd vote for anyone not in office."

Rise of money

Whitters' views reflect a long-term erosion of public trust in the US government, a trend that has coincided with skyrocketing income inequality and growing corporate influence in politics.

Business interests ramped up their political spending in the 1970s to counter what they perceived as growing threats to their influence. Workers were restive, with more days lost to work stoppages in 1970 than any year since 1946. A wave of consumer activism led to fresh regulations on industry, to the chagrin of corporations.

Counting the Cost - The human cost of the US shutdown

Trade groups launched a range of new lobbying outfits in response, increasing their expenditures on congressional elections almost five-fold in the decade after 1970, professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson note in their book Winner-Take-All Politics.

Political parties also became more eager for cash. The Republicans, chastened by extended periods as the legislature's minority party, ramped up their fundraising efforts. The Democrats followed. The rise of television and public opinion polling added to their expenses. In 1974, congressional candidates spent a combined $77m on their campaigns; by 2010, the figure reached $1.8bn.

The influx of money, together with the Vietnam disaster and Watergate scandal, helped push the public psyche towards scepticism. In the mid-1960s, less than one-third of Americans believed that "government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves". In 2008, the figure exceeded 70 percent, Hacker and Pierson write.

Deadlock

Today's government shutdown comes amid unprecedented public contempt for Congress. In June, the Gallup polling agency reported that only 10 percent of Americans had confidence in Congress. That was the "lowest point on record" and "the worst Gallup has ever found for any institution it has measured since 1973".

Like many Americans, 26-year-old attorney Jessica Kurtz is frustrated with congressional deadlock. She voted for Obama and thinks he has done "pretty well". Still, she does not shy away from criticising both the Democrats and the Republicans.

"It's not entirely Congress's fault, but there's no bipartisanship. No one can work together. They're acting like spoiled brats - everyone," Kurtz told Al Jazeera. "Their family and friends still like them. I think that would account for the 10 percent rating." 

The public has not reserved its ire for Congress only. Earlier this year, the Pew research centre reported that just 28 percent of Americans viewed federal government favourably, "the lowest percentage ever".

Hacker, a professor of political science and director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, told Al Jazeera that Americans are "not wrong" to be sceptical of their government.

"Americans don't trust government because they don't believe it's functioning and they don't have faith that the people running it are listening to them, rather than to powerful interest groups," he said. "This has been a period of intense partisan polarisation, as well as massive lobbying and campaign spending by deep-pocketed interests."

He added that experts still debate the reasons for declining trust in government, "but certainly part of the reason is that government has seen less capable of providing the basic economic security and opportunity that characterised the post-World War II expansion. Another big part is that politicians have become much more sharply divided over the role of government in responding to these economic strains."

Yet another cause of popular anger is the perception that the government ignores the policy views of all but the wealthy. In a landmark study of the link between public opinion and government policy spanning decades, Princeton University professor Martin Gilens assails "the complete lack of government responsiveness to the preferences of the poor".

When rich and poor Americans disagree on policy issues, "government policy bears absolutely no relationship to the degree of support or opposition among the poor", Gilens writes. Any exception to this pattern is "likely to reflect the extent to which their preferences coincide with those of the affluent".

The rich are more politically active than the rest, but Gilens gives this explanation little credence. According to him, "money is at the root of representational inequality, and as political campaigns have become more expensive over the decades, the responsiveness to those who supply the necessary resources has grown".

Solutions

As the shutdown concluded its first week, Congress passed legislation promising back pay for furloughed workers, and the Pentagon ordered most of its affected employees to return to work.

We need to move toward a system of small-donor-focused public financing, to take the special interest dollars out of democracy.

- Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen

But many analysts expect the shutdown to stretch into mid-October, when Congress will need to lift the country's debt ceiling or face default. House Republicans are expected to seek a bargain on both issues simultaneously, in order to minimise political backlash from the incident.

However the current crisis plays out, it will take time to restore the public's faith in government. Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch division at the monitoring group Public Citizen, said that depends on stemming "the torrent of money into our system".

"I think the first solution we need is enhanced disclosure, so that the public can learn the truth about who is funding campaign ads and paying for our elections," she told Al Jazeera. "Secondly, we need to move toward a system of small-donor-focused public financing, to take the special interest dollars out of democracy."

A poll commissioned by Public Citizen in 2012 found that 84 percent of Americans believe that "corporate political spending drowns out the voices of average Americans". 

It's a perception that spans the political spectrum. "I disagree with big business all the way," said Whitters, the pro-Republican plumber. "That's why I was hoping a third party would get every seat [in Congress]."

Waiting for his bus after a recent night shift, fast-food worker Leslie Martin told Al Jazeera that Americans are running out of patience.

"They always go for special interests, whatever group helped fund them, get them into office. It's always been that way, whether it's Democrats or Republicans," he said. "Instead of arguing about shutting down the government, they should think about helping the people who put them in."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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