Panel: Budgeting, politics, baby boomers to blame for government shutdown

By Tim Purinton, MPP ’14, Staff Writer

When the recent federal government shutdown prevented United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack from delivering his scheduled lecture on “Rural Innovation”, the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics was quick to respond with a panel of HKS experts to explore the causes of the situation.

The panel on the shutdown, moderated by former Washington Post editor and IOP Fellow Maralee Schwartz, featured Professors David King and Linda Bilmes and Shorenstein Center Fellow and TIME Columnist Joe Klein.

The first federal government shutdown in 17 years commenced on Tuesday, Oct. 1, when national lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on the budget for the next fiscal year by midnight on Tuesday. The increase in the debt ceiling and the timing and the content of parts of the Affordable Care Act, such as the requirement that individuals buy health insurance and federal health care subsidies for certain government officials, have also been points of contention in the Senate and House of Republicans over the past few weeks.

When Schwartz asked why the United States government was shut down, Klein, who described himself as a “flaming moderate,” said that one reason was the use of gerrymandering to create Congressional districts that do not represent cross-cultural strata.

Though the media often blame gerrymandering for “tribalizing” the people, sometimes, Klein said, “bad government happens to good people.”

Klein also laid some blame on the baby boom generation, of which he is a member. He explained that his generation was groomed to confront authority, which he said was mirrored in the tactics of Tea Party Republicans.

For Bilmes, the shutdown was in part an institutional problem.

“We budget too often,” she said, adding that the U.S. budget process was stuck in the Stone Age.

King offered a less technical, more political insight. He proposed that Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) was “trying to survive” in his post as Speaker by pandering to factions of his party, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-OH) waits in the wings.

The panelists agreed that the shutdown was a precursor to the looming debt ceiling debate and that the merits of the Affordable Care Act (sometimes called “Obamacare”) were on the line. Schwartz said that the Obama administration has done a poor job of conveying the benefits of his landmark legislation.

Not surprisingly given the venue, the role of HKS was broached during a question and answer session. Klein noted that a Master in Public Policy degree was popular, but the country also “needs inspired brilliant managers” advocating for a stronger focus on public administration.

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