Professor: Polarization is at heart of shutdown

Oct. 03, 2013 @ 03:00 AM

The polarization of Congress and the American people could be at the heart of the partial federal government shutdown.

Dr. Ben Gaskins, associate professor of political science at Gardner-Webb University, suggested that during a recent radio interview on WGWG.

And, much like the last government shutdown in 1995, the latest revolves around what Gaskins called the direction of the country. The shutdown in 1995 lasted 21 days.

“Shutting down the government has usually been the threat of last resort,” Gaskins said. “Congress is supposed to authorize taxing and spending and when they can’t agree on the funding, the government will shutdown.”

In 1995, Gaskins said the issue was between President Bill Clinton who wanted to spend more money on different government programs but he was rebuffed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Fast-forward to 2013 where President Barack Obama wants to continue the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, whereas House Republicans led by Speaker of the House John Boehner have filed numerous attempts at defunding the measure.

But, more importantly, Gaskins said the latest shutdown further shows gridlock in Washington which can be attributed to members of Congress feeling safer come re-election.

He said, in 1995, Democrats in Democrat-leaning districts only had a 2-3 percent advantage and the same held with Republicans in Republican districts. Now, that margin has increased to double-digits on both sides of the aisle.

“To some degree polarization is more at an elite level,” Gaskins said. “Really, what it comes down to is that districts look twice as polarized as they did in 1995 and it is no surprise that the House and Senate could not come to an agreement.”

Despite the appearance both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are playing to their base, Gaskins said it does not take away from the fact public approval of Congress is near 10 percent in some national polls. Additionally, those same polls indicate the American people are blaming Congress for the recent shutdown.

“It doesn’t appear Congress is doing itself any favors by not coming to compromise,” Gaskins said. “So, the approval rating is only going to get worse and, come the next election, the shutdown may backfire on Republicans that are vulnerable because people are blaming Republicans more than they are Democrats or President Obama.

“It seems like Republicans are yearning for a fight. More moderate members of the party are more nervous. When there is a shutdown, polls show Congress will get the blame.”

Gaskins said that the overall mood of the American people could lead to a compromise but there is no timeframe to that solution — whether it be a budget or another continuing resolution.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if it went on as the last shutdown did,” Gaskins said. “The last shutdown was about the direction of the country and so is this and there doesn’t seem to be a mood to compromise on the main issue which is Obamacare.”

He said a possible compromise could include measures surrounding upcoming debate on raising the federal debt limit. Gaskins said the impacts of the debt limit are more far-reaching than a shutdown.

“They are going to have deep conversations but I am not optimistic right now that those conversations will lead to anything,” Gaskins said. “But the general will of the American people is that of general disgust and people are fed up with the way government is operating.”