Congress isn’t really “The Government”

During the shutdown, many Americans have expressed frustration with the failures, sluggishness, and infighting of “the government.” “Throw the bums in Washington out!” is a popular idea. We’ll leave aside for a moment the fact that we voted for those folks in Washington in order to discuss something more important.

The United States Congress isn’t really “the government.” In political science terms, it is: the House and Senate legislate for the country and therefore govern it, sharing sovereignty with the President, Supreme Court, and state and local governments. But when most people think about “the government,” they mean an amorphous blob of bureaucrats and politicians who do stuff with our money. As the last few weeks have shown, we don’t remember what exactly our government does. There are rather a lot of people who work for the government doing pretty important stuff.

Congress is only a small part of this blob, albeit one of the most visible parts. “The government” also includes things that make us feel warm and fuzzy, like National Parks and National Monuments, as well as organizations that protect us: not only the military, but the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the National Transportation Safety Board, to name a few.

We will probably soon forget about most of the services that the federal government provides. However, many people will not forget about the dysfunction up on Capitol Hill–although whether they blame it on the Rs or the Ds will mostly depend on their own political orientation. The trouble for all of those regulatory bodies and other government services is that because members of Congress draw their paychecks from the U.S. Treasury, just like government officials, the problems in the Capitol can easily morph into problems of “the government.” To jump back to political science language, it is easy to conflate “the state” (the legal, regulatory apparatus that includes everything from the Navy to the EPA) and “the government” (the specific group of policymakers in office at this time). People who do the jobs for which Congress has legislated shouldn’t be lumped in with the policymakers who pass laws and make appropriations.

You may detest the people in the Senate and House chambers. But let’s be very clear: they aren’t the same as the Capitol Police, Park Rangers, or food inspectors. Plenty of people don’t like government (a trait curiously shared by Tea Partiers and anarchists), but don’t tar civil servants we the brush we use for politicians. And if you’ve got that brush out for the politicians, don’t forget the feathers.


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