Skip Navigation

How Government Dysfunction and Big Money Fuel the Shutdown

With politicians beholden to big money donors, it’s no wonder they can’t get together to actually pass any bills or end the shutdown. The message is clear — we can’t solve our problems until we fix our systems.

  • Erik Opsal
October 9, 2013

It’s day nine of the government shutdown — and Americans aren’t happy with our nation’s leadership. According to a new Gallup poll, 33 percent said government dysfunction was the number one issue facing the country, more than the economy (19 percent) and unemployment (12 percent) combined.

This should come as no surprise. The partisan fights in Washington threaten the economy, and if the standoff continues through the debt ceiling deadline next week, the effects could ripple across the globe.

Americans also view the current dispute much differently than the 1996 shutdown. Then, only 17 percent said dysfunction was our top problem and 28 percent named the budget and deficit. “This suggests that Americans this time are focusing more on problems with the process involved in governing rather than on the underlying issues involved,” reports Gallup.

Hyper-partisanship is certainly to blame, but government dysfunction has been a long-standing issue. Senate paralysis, due to filibuster abuse, is a major factor crippling Congress. The 2011–12 Senate passed a record-low 2.8 percent* of bills it introduced, a 66 percent decrease from 2005–06, and a 90 percent decrease from the high in 1955–56.

Another big problem is money. The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision unleashed a torrent of outside spending in 2012 — more than $1 billion, much of it from shadowy non-profits and Super PACs.

“I’ve continued to believe that Citizens United contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now,” President Barack Obama said during yesterday’s press conference on the shutdown. “You have some ideological extremist who has a big bankroll, and they can entirely skew our politics.”

Unfortunately, a case heard yesterday by the Court could make things even worse. McCutcheon v. FEC challenges aggregate contribution limits, the total amount one donor can give in federal elections to all candidates, political parties, and PACs combined, currently $123,200. If the Supreme Court struck down the limits, a single politician could use joint fundraising committees to solicit more than $3.5 million from one donor. “If you give $3.5 million, you get a very, very special seat at the table,” noted Justice Elena Kagan in Tuesday’s oral argument.

This kind of money would dramatically raise the cost of access to elected officials. It would silence the voices of millions of average Americans and give a few wealthy donors unprecedented influence over legislators — all at a time when the vast majority of Americans already think their elected representatives are too beholden to big donors.

“Essentially, [McCutcheon] would say anything goes; there are no rules in terms of how to finance campaigns,” Obama said yesterday. “There aren’t a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way, where you can basically have millionaires and billionaires bankrolling whoever they want, however they want, in some cases undisclosed.”

With politicians beholden to “extremist” big donors, it’s no wonder they can’t get together to actually pass any bills or end the shutdown. The message is clear — we can’t solve our problems until we fix our systems. Right now, our democracy is broken.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

*As of the Brennan Center’s November 16, 2012 report.