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When Will the Federal Government Get Back to Normal? 5 Reasons the Shutdown is the New Normal

As a partner in a small government consulting firm, I’ve asked myself this question several times over the last two years - especially as we prepare for the possibility of yet another government shutdown and then a debt default soon after. Will contracts stop? What do we tell employees? How do we prepare? Can we do much of anything? And finally: is this really just going to happen all over again in two weeks in another form (the debt ceiling), and in the same form again in November/December?

I’ve noticed each shutdown crisis takes longer for anyone to pay much attention. Most of the media and Washington community didn’t really start paying attention in earnest until last week. In the past, it seemed like we were talking about a shutdown for weeks before. In some ways, we are already getting used to this new normal (or maybe it was recess and Syria), but in other ways we still continue to ask the question: when will this stop and go back to the way it was? For good or bad, I think the answer is never.

Here are five reasons I think we are in for a continued period of instability around the federal budget and appropriations and politics in general:

1. Social media, and really all media, create very little room to operate out of the public eye. Most events in Washington are followed in minute detail across a variety of platforms including traditional media: Politico, the Post, Fox News, MSNBC, the Drudge Report, Daily Kos, etc.; by interest and advocacy groups that can quickly communicate to dedicated followers; and in general, social media that can create, perpetuate, or change a story without any intermediation by traditional media.

2. The power of outside groups is getting much stronger than Congress. The ability to organize and fundraise on the part of various interest groups and individuals is easier than ever. It seems like Congress, and to some extent the Administration, has become a chessboard on which outside interest groups play. To some extent this has always been true, but the level of sophistication of outside groups is up, and the ability of Congress to preserve its institutional prerogatives is down.

3. We live in a time where the power of dedicated minorities is greater than ever. It doesn’t take that many people to flood a Congressional office with email, mail, and phone calls, or win a primary election for that matter.

4. We are divided. It’s clear that the divisions between the parties have solidified over the last decade or two, and we’ve entered an era of polarization not seen since the late 1800s. Given that polarized interests now have the additional advantages of easier fundraising and organizing, that’s a potent mix.

5. The instability we see in politics is similar to the instability we see in technology, business, and society in general. Social norms are changing: Microsoft is down and Twitter is up, everyone has their head in a smart phone, and the demographic mix of the country is altering with each passing year.

I don’t know whether we are entering a period of one CR crisis after another followed by the CR crisis’s much larger and uglier twin brother, the debt ceiling crisis. That has been true for 2-3 years now, and it may continue. Another possibility is that we get to place where most interests see the budget battles as a loser and move to different tactics.

Although the tactics might shift, the instability will remain, and I don’t know what the outcome is. Do institutions like Congress, the parties, and the Administration learn a new set of tactics to seize back control of the situation or do we adjust to a new normal in which power is more diffuse, and crises are a matter of course? I don’t think anyone knows the answer, but one thing I do know is that it isn’t going back to “normal”.

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Tags: Government, budgeting, shutdown

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Comment by David B. Grinberg on October 2, 2013 at 5:00pm

No, I don't think the federal gov shutdown is the new normal.  Rather, I hope and believe that this impasse marks the beginning of the end, rather than a continuation of the recent political and legislative acrimony. 

Why? Because the shutdown will give pause to all the gov haters and fed bashers in Congress as the American people slowly but surely feel the pain and the mass media increase their crisis coverage.

Moreover, I hope and believe that Congress and the President will use this time not only to negotiate an end to the shutdown and debt ceiling crisis, but also establish a much needed framework for governing generally -- one that doesn't rely on perpetual continuing resolutions and political partisanship run amok.

If this does not occur then many politicians will surely pay the price by during the 2014 and 2016 elections. Ultimately, politics and governing is about striving to reach legislative and policy consensus for the good of the American people.

Lawmakers know in their hearts and minds that we have reached a political low point. Lawmakers know they must ultimately put extreme partisanship and radical ideology aside -- and do their jobs for the greater good of this nation. 

Comment by John L. Waid on October 1, 2013 at 12:09pm

Every election cycle we go to the polls to elect our leaders, but increasingly it seems that these so-called "leaders" refuse to lead.  Instead, they try to find a parade and get in front of it.  As the article points out, however, that is becoming increasingly difficult as information is more diffuse and pressure groups become better organized.

The advent of the professional politican, for whom keeping office is more important than what he does while in office, has contributed greatly to this situation.  So has the advent of the single-issue zealot, one of whom occupies the White House.  Mr. Obama pushed Obamacase through Congress by legislative trickery even though two-thirds of his supposed constituents opposed it in general and even larger majorities oppose specific parts of it.  

The really galling part of this shutdown is that workers and independent contractors will not get paid, at least temporarily.  The people who created this mess (Congress), however, will get paid.  they inflict pain but do not share it.  The true leader leads by example, including sharing the hardships of his troops.  Not these people.

Obama's toadies in the press are dutifully blaming all this on the Republicans.  the Republicans are doing what legislative minorities often do to get their voices heard -- hold hostage one of the majority's pet projects.  Will this tactic work or will the constant drumbeat from the mainscream press force them to back down?  We'll see.  In the meantime, hard-working people are being forced to bear the brunt of Congress' mistakes.  As usual.

Comment by Alan Pentz on October 1, 2013 at 11:43am

Thanks for the comments @mindy giberstone @JodyMc @Daniel Honker @Andy Oram. Great follow up points. I've only read the book review for the End of Power. Might be time to pick up the book. I'm doing a follow up blog today on the difference between this shutdown and the one in 95.

Comment by Mindy Giberstone on October 1, 2013 at 10:19am

# 1 point is quite powerful,  as  half truths or lies get retold over and over, they become more persuasive to the listener. New media can vilify the opposition. Why compromise with an evil, malingering, dangerous opponent? 

Comment by JodyMc on October 1, 2013 at 9:56am

Thoughtful and concise post, thank you.

Comment by Daniel Honker on October 1, 2013 at 9:40am

Great post, Alan. I think one trend behind #3 and #4 is the gerrymandering of congressional districts into safer and safer seats for each party. This leads the current situation in which members are interpreting their mandate in a very different way than it is viewed nationally. In short, members don't have to be as concerned with national mandates if their district is more and more homogeneous, and thus there's no compromise.

Comment by Andy Oram on October 1, 2013 at 9:26am

These explanations are persuasive, and I recommend the following book
to people intrigued by them:

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to
States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be, by Moises Naim
(some accents got lost from the name in the site where I took it)

Each of Alan's 5 points can be found in this book. The book is a very
broad treatment of a social trend and is probably oversimplified, but
I think it has a lot to offer.

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