For Democracy to Work, Politicians Must Believe in It

For Democracy to Work, Politicians Must Believe in It February 9, 2019

“The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate,” said St. Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus. “Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends.” (Ibid, no. 46) [1]

But we seem to have such a usurpation built into the system. When one side to a controversy doesn’t have the votes to get what it wants, it can partially shut down the government.

We need not blame the Founding Fathers for this systemic shortcoming. No one seems to have thought of it as a useful tactic until the 1980s.

But now that our politicians manifestly are prepared to injure the democratic process in the interest of whatever special interests they are representing, we’re going to need a safeguard against such villainy. We don’t get a choice as to whether to pay our taxes, after all; shutting down the government, which is partially funded by those taxes, should not be in the politicians’ toolbox. And let us not forget about the human suffering the tactic causes.

Now “bills from lawmakers in both parties attempting in different ways to keep agencies open if Congress misses a deadline to fund the government have piled up in recent days. They range from setting up potentially indefinite continuing resolutions to simply threatening to withhold congressional and White House salaries until negotiators reach a deal.” [2]

So many members of Congress are millionaires, it is hard to see how withholding their salaries would be a serious deterrent to the sort of misbehavior in question. Presidents also tend to be fairly well-off by the time they take office. Much better to provide that if Congress doesn’t pass a budget that the president signs, the government will continue to be funded at previous levels.

One suspects that this is the sort of thing that will be forgotten until the next time, and one can reasonably doubt that the current occupant of the White House will agree to divest himself of a weapon which, by his own account, he used proudly. But we need exactly that sort of insurance in an age in which politicians purposely damage the governmental operations they were elected to manage.


The icon of St. Joseph the Worker is by Daniel Nichols.

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  • Ironic to quote the leader of one of the world’s most undemocratic institutions praising democracy. The RC Church is schizophrenic, being internally mostly in direct opposition to its social teaching.

  • Richard B

    It is a pity that what we have come to understand as democracy has become utterly corrupt. People in high places keep seeking ways to enrich themselves at the expense of persons of lesser estate. The Church is complicit here.

  • Gregory Smith

    Certainly not unique to the current administration as this article seems to articulate.

    Some of the most significant shutdowns in US history have included: three major shutdowns in the 1980s during the Presidential term of Ronald Reagan over opposition to proposal against his political beliefs; the 21-day shutdown of 1995-1996 during the Presidential term of Bill Clinton over opposition to major spending cuts; the 16-day shutdown in 2013 during the Presidential term of Barack Obama caused by an argument between Democrats and Republicans over measures concerning the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act;[5] and the 35-day shutdown of 2018-2019 during the Presidential term of Donald Trump, the longest shutdown in US history,[6] caused by a refusal from Democrats to approve funding a new US–Mexico border wall.[7][8]