Last week, in Jerusalem, I participated in an international conference on aviation medicine, where some 180 participants gathered from all around the world to exchange knowledge on this important topic. The surgeon general of the Israel Defense Forces gave greetings, and then went on to read from the paper the greetings of a high-ranking officer from the U.S. Army Medical Department who was supposed to participate as well.
“For the last year, it has been my dream to come to Jerusalem and be with you in this prestigious gathering,” the American officer wrote. “Unfortunately, because of the government shutdown, I had to cancel my trip.”
People in the audience couldn’t control their giggles. All of them came from countries with parliamentary systems, where governments could be inefficient, instable, even corrupt, but nevertheless, a shutdown was not in their vocabulary. Then, during the break, the participants, no strangers to casualties on the battlefield, were appalled to hear that because of the shutdown, families of American soldiers who had been killed in Afghanistan didn’t receive the “death gratuity,” which helps families with the funeral costs.
People concluded that something very strange must be happening in the capital of the (still) greatest power on earth.
I learned about a government shutdown 10 years ago, not from the newspapers but rather from the West Wing series aired on NBC. In one of the episodes, Democratic President Josiah Bartlet and Republican Speaker Jeff Haffley prefer to shut down the government rather than reach a deal. At the time I thought it was maybe a bit of a stretch of imagination by the creators of the series, but nevertheless a good dramatic entertainment. Turns out that the series was closer to reality than I thought.
My American friends always used to ridicule the Israeli parliamentary system, where a prime minister, the morning after election day, would struggle to form a coalition government, and then embark on the bumpy road of political survival. They pointed to the lack of stability, where every Knesset session might turn out to be an ambush, with the chance of toppling the government, and to the poor level of governance. “You can’t get your act together,” was their usual mantra, followed by its sequel, “You can’t get things done.”
I usually defend the Israeli system by saying that I prefer a wide participation of parties, factions and voters in the realm of government, something which calls for ongoing compromise, over the American system, where sharp polarization is the name of the game. In recent years, what I kept hearing from my American friends was the following:
Whenever a Democratic president is elected, half of the people believe that the country has been hijacked by communists who want to throw government money at people who don’t want to work. And when a Republican is elected, the other half concludes that America has fallen into the hands of right-wing lunatics, whose only obsession is to throw the country into futile wars in godforsaken parts of the world. I rarely hear something balanced, in between.
As for “getting things done,” I served under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who, in less than four years, and with a cumbersome coalition government, managed to move Israel ahead in four main areas: historic reconciliation with the Palestinians; unprecedented upgrading of transportation infrastructure; boosting the status of teachers; and for the first time in Israel’s history, investing in the long neglected sector of the Israeli Arabs. In the final analysis, then, it all boils down to leadership.
I know, the American system is based on the doctrine of checks and balances. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” wrote James Madison in Federalist 51. However, I don’t think that the framers wanted to see checks and balances turn into paralysis.
So with such an amazing Constitution, which has served the United States for almost two-and-a-half centuries and through so many changes, maybe it’s time for a new amendment, which will address this kind of crisis of government.
But then, that would require the House of Representatives to pass it. Hmm.