The great governmental shutdown in Washington turned out to have its utility after all.
It prompted a substantial national debate about the role of government in our nation. It spurred an unusual surge of conversation about Congress, with Americans conducting a national civics lesson and actually examining the performance of their representatives. It raised eternal questions about the balance between conviction and compromise, about the equilibrium between resolve and responsibility. And it illuminated several important themes about American governance that sometimes are explored in isolation but seldom in broad context.
So, a muted cheer for all of those who stuck to their guns while endangering the nation’s image, financial stability and role in the world. They shined a bright light on these immutable elements of our system:
The split between the House and the Senate, which are entirely different bodies, and not only because they operate with different rules.
Sometimes the two chambers move in the same direction — a good example was how Charles Sumner of the Senate and Thaddeus Stevens of the House operated in tandem during Reconstruction. But oftentimes they don’t, or they at least move at different speeds with different timbres; the intensity of the Senate’s willingness to defund the Vietnam War in the 1970s, for example, wasn’t matched by the House.
This autumn the two bodies are showing their character, the Senate displaying the power of an individual (Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) to dominate proceedings, the House reminding us that it is ruled by coalitions (the tea party). This is only heightened by the fact that the two chambers are ruled by different parties.
The view of the national interest is different from the height of the Capitol than it is 16 blocks away in the White House.
It is true that in many respects Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama have the same strategy, which is to hang tough while tea party Republicans appear to hang themselves. (That is a good strategy while the poll numbers hang high. Once they drop, that strategy will be dropped, too.)