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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Saving Democracy Means Saving the Legislature from Itself

The budget fight isn’t about the particulars of spending—it’s about who has the power.

Congressman,Matt,Gaetz,Speaks,On,The,2nd,Day,Of,Cpac
Credit: Iev radin

Although most people tend to doze off when it comes to debates over spending bills and possible government shutdowns, there is good reason to believe that the recently concluded standoff merits more attention. In an amazing exchange between Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo and Matt Gaetz, Gaetz makes it clear that the status quo on the budget for the last few decades needs to end. 

The conversation is tense from the outset, with Gaetz responding to Bartiromo who casts him as a “disruptor trying to blow up the GOP unity” and “disrupt the Republican wins.” It only escalates from there. Bartiromo pelts Gaetz with hysterical objections that (1) McCarthy has already made enough concessions to conservative Republicans, (2) demanding more with such a thin majority in the House is futile and will lead to Democrats free rein to spend like madmen, and (3) a government shutdown will just make Republicans look bad with voters.

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Gaetz knocks these arguments down one by one. First, McCarthy hasn’t even come close to holding up his end of the bargain that he made the conservative Republicans this summer—a point that even leftist writers at the New York Times have made—and what few concessions he has made are either superficial or too little too late. 

Second, if the GOP is unwilling to use a potential shutdown to demand more compromises from Democrats, then Democrats are effectively spending as much as they please anyway. Whether this happens after McCarthy makes a few performative gestures to placate the Freedom Caucus or gadflies like Gaetz (Gaetzflies?) or after Democrats use their majority in the Senate and plurality in the House to overrule McCarthy’s demands, it doesn’t make much of a difference. For the GOP, there’s little to lose and potentially much to gain from having a little more backbone.

Third, most voters probably wouldn’t care about an impending government shutdown. Even though the corporate news media will make a big fuss about longer waits to get a passport or processing federal student loan payments, the actual consequences of a shutdown are laughably light. The government will still fund its essential functions, and the country will carry on as before.  

But, some have objected, a shutdown might actually help the Democrats because they could then use it as an excuse for a collapsing economy or any other tangentially related crisis. Of course this would happen anyway, as Democrats already blame former President Donald Trump and the GOP for all their failures, no matter how ridiculous it might be. If the economy slips into a recession, would voters really buy the idiotic argument that the Republicans did it with their legislative intransigence, or would they rightly understand that President Bidenomics failed because he’s senile, corrupt, and incompetent? 

Something that Gaetz and his cheerleader Trump understand is that, at its heart, this fight over the budget isn’t so much about fiscal responsibility, or the war in Ukraine, or the crisis at the border, or the Bidens taking bribes. It’s about power. And, based on last year’s budget, that adds up to approximately $6.3 trillion worth of power. This power underlies everything the federal government does, and if Republicans were serious about fixing the country’s problems, they would start here. 

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For, to borrow the logic of St. Paul’s famous sermon on love, even if a party controls most of the federal government, the corporate media, all the schools and major cultural institutions, but does not control the legislature, it gains nothing. Three branches of the U.S. government remain: the executive, judiciary, and legislature. But the greatest of these is the legislature. 

Ideally, the Congress is supposed to take up each major national concern and decide to fund or defund the programs, agencies, and initiatives meant to address that concern. If a department fails at protecting the border, it should be eliminated, replaced, or reconstituted. If a law enforcement agency charged with catching high-level criminals is instead raiding the homes of political opponents and orchestrating phony kidnapping plots, the same applies. If a conflict abroad is proving to be needlessly prolonged and going nowhere, then a treaty should be struck and foreign aid reduced.

As it stands, however, there are no debates. Everything is funded with periodic omnibus spending bills, no questions asked. Sure, some of what the government does certainly requires funding, but some (if not most) of it doesn’t. Yet when nearly all spending, good and bad, is packaged into a 4000-plus page monstrosity of a bill, it’s impossible to reform anything or hold anyone accountable.

And this seems to be Gaetz’s point. In going along with this incredibly flawed spending process, the legislature has renounced its own power and responsibility. It exists to serve special interests, not the American people. That could change immediately if congress actually read the bills they voted on, and if those bills were focused on a single subject, not everything, everywhere, all at once. 

Unfortunately, shutdown or not, nearly every other legislator in both parties will fight such a change because this would make them accountable to their voters as well as their donors, lobbyists, and government cronies. They would prefer to continue placating the latter, lying to the former, and sustaining the shadow oligarchy that currently rules America. 

Therefore, Americans of all political backgrounds should support Gaetz in his endeavor to make the legislature a democratic institution once again, and hopefully to stave off bankruptcy a little while longer. Whether or not his heart is in the right place, his argument is entirely valid. Contrary to Bartiromo’s narrative, he is the hero of this story, not the villain.