America Loses Unless We Act

Cooler heads finally prevailed in the latest fiscal crisis that essentially shut down the U.S. government for 16 days and threatened default on the national debt for the first time in our history. That Congress stepped back from the brink is critical; that our political leaders took us so close to falling over the edge -- and have no plan for avoiding a repeat of this crisis in a few months' time -- should be unacceptable to all of us.

Experts will debate the cost of the latest Washington crisis to our economy, but no one should doubt the damage done to Americans' already low confidence in their government or the world's confidence in U.S. leadership. Beyond the countless number of American lives and businesses disrupted by the government shutdown, Congress's inability to reach a deal until hours before a potentially catastrophic default deepened domestic and international uncertainty about our ability to govern. This uncertainty leaves people feeling nervous at best, but of greater concern feeds the growing cynicism that our political institutions and the people we elect to run them are no longer serving the needs of our country. Many Americans are turning away from democratic participation, just as many non-Americans are turning their assets away from the United States.

As our media obsesses over whether Democrats or Republicans, the president or Congress, won or lost the recent debacle, it fails to ask the most important question: Did America win or lose, and what are the implications? And are we even facing up to the right issues? In a recent Washington Post article, Larry Summers argues that political leaders should focus on economic growth instead of deficits, commenting that, "most of the substance being debated in the current crisis is only tangentially relevant to the major challenges and opportunities facing the United States." Taking a different view in the Washington Post, Robert Samuelson writes that, "slow economic growth now imperils this postwar order. Government spending -- boosted by an aging population eligible for Social Security and Medicare -- has outrun our willingness to be taxed. The mismatch is the basic cause of 'structural' budget deficits and, by extension, today's strife over the debt ceiling and the government 'shutdown.'" Whichever view you support, we'd like to hear your views. Big picture concerns like those raised by Summers and Samuelson are far more important to this country's future than debates framed based on winning or losing the next election.

Our vision is a democracy capable of solving the nation's near and long-term challenges and responsive to the needs of all Americans. Incivility and ideological absolutism lead not just to polarization but also to legislative paralysis, as we witnessed so dramatically in Washington again this month. Constant political conflict, brinksmanship, gridlock, and the loss of trust in America's ability to effectively govern underscore that our democracy needs to be restored.

We stepped back from the brink, but only for now. Lawmakers will face these self-imposed deadlines all over again in January and February. Just as Congress and the president have important choices before them, so do we. Do Americans breathe a sigh of relief and go back to our everyday lives, simply hoping our elected officials will do better next time, or do we accept responsibility for what's happened to our democracy and stay engaged, demanding that our elected officials do better?

Tell us what steps this country should take to avoid a repeat of the October showdown again early next year. What will you do to help?