A Progressive Guide To The US Shutdown

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Like our Federal Government, the US Government has to vote its budget into legislation – what we would call “supply”. This year there’s a catch: President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, otherwise known as Obamacare, finally came into force on 1 October. The Republican Party, which controls the House of Representatives, has campaigned hard against Obamacare from day one, and have blocked supply to try and spike it at the eleventh hour. The Senate, which is Democrat-controlled, refuses to be held to ransom. As a result, no budget was passed, and when the fiscal year ended on 30 September the US Government could no longer fund the wages of its federal workers.

That’s the Sparknotes version. Apologies for the lack of gifs.

It would be a mistake to see the shutdown as a tussle between two parties over a substantive issue of policy, or intransigence on both sides. It’s an act of brinkmanship by the Republicans against a government that was popularly elected last year. Not that this matters to the Republican Party; post-George W. Bush they’ve been more savage than ever before, driving hard for the maximum political advantage on every issue possible, no matter the cost.

As Mariya Strauss notes at labour magazine In These Times, their issue isn’t really with Obamacare:

Cutting off wages to federal employees and their families, shuttering national parks and halting routine workplace safety and mine safety inspections—all these comprise merely an opening gambit … what they want is what the corporations and individuals who funded their campaigns want: austerity spending cuts, tax cuts for the rich, perks for fossil fuel industries, cuts to women’s health care and food stamps, and the like.

Think Progress has a longer list of demands Republicans have made under the threat of shutdown since the Bush years, which includes such items as: cutting access to birth control, defunding the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, and expanding or protecting exist mining operations. The Republicans hate Obamacare — although they love fear-mongering about it — but it could easily have been a different issue that sparked the shutdown gambit. Even if they don’t succeed this time, the Republicans have been successful in their overall goal. They’ve extracted $1.7 trillion in budget cuts out of the Federal Government, 72 per cent of the overall debt reduction. Now that’s how you do austerity.

For US civil servants, being “furloughed” is the latest kick in the teeth. As I wrote in NM recently, federal workers in the US have taken plenty of hits during Obama’s debt writedowns. “Our members have already suffered through six days of furloughs this year, we’ve been in a three-year pay freeze and there’s been a constant threat of job loss. It’s been a year of total uncertainty,” J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told The Nation

The New York Times, not exactly a hotbed of left-wing dissent, tore strips off the Republicans in an editorial on 1 October. “By midnight on Tuesday, the leadership failure of Speaker John Boehner was complete,” the Grey Lady pronounced:

At any point, Mr. Boehner could have stopped it. Had he put on the floor a simple temporary spending resolution to keep the government open, without the outrageous demands to delay or defund the health reform law, it could easily have passed the House with a strong majority — including with sizable support from Republican members, many of whom are aware of how badly this collapse will damage their party. … Having let down the public, Republicans will now, inevitably, scramble to save their reputation. They are desperate to make it appear that Mr. Obama and the Democrats are the ones being intransigent, hoping voters will think that everyone is at fault and simply blame “Washington.”

So why has the Republican Party become so crusading? Many blame the influence of the Tea Party, the Republicans’ corporate-driven libertarian faction, for driving the shutdown. But John Nichols, writing in The Nation, says the Tea Party shouldn’t be given that much credit. They’re really a “money-and-media election complex that has developed to “police” Republican primaries”:

In overwhelmingly Republican districts, the threat of a general election defeat—at the hands of swing voters infuriated with extremist stances and general dysfunction—is slim. But the threat of a primary challenge, and defeat, is real. With national networks of right-wing donors at the ready to fund runs against so-called “Republican-in-Name-Only” incumbents, the threat is amplified.

“Reasonable” right-wing Republicans who were involved in negotiations that ended the previous shutdown in 1995-96 have come under attack from corporate funded opponents inside their own party, Nichols says. They’re terrified of being “primaried”, and so won’t negotiate. "So Republicans who might once have sought common ground now refuse to do so."

Of course, Republicans and their apologists are defending their aggressive stance. Senator Pat Buchanan, writing in The American Conservative, said that the Republican party has a duty to oppose Obamacare:

If national polls are to be believed, those House Republicans are doing exactly what America wants. A majority of Americans oppose a government shutdown. And a majority oppose Obamacare. Who, then, is preventing the government from being funded? … Few disagree that, in any national plebiscite, Obamacare would be buried in a landslide. Few disagree that if Obamacare were put to a vote of the Congress today, it would fail in both houses. Why, then, is it radical for the House to use its power of the purse to defund a program America does not want?

Speaking of programs the US doesn’t want, while garbage collection in DC grinds to a halt, some other functions will continue to operate. Drones are still up in the air, for example. The notorious TSA pat downs at airports will still take place; they themselves were the target of an astroturfed Tea Party “revolt” to stop airport workers unionising in 2010. One and a half million soldiers will also continue to collect paychecks.

So is there a way out of this quagmire? The Democrat-controlled Senate refuses to back down, with Obama telling Republicans to stop fighting a law that is already three years old. Republicans have no incentive to do so. In two weeks, Congress will again have to debate raising the nation’s borrowing limit — the so-called “debt ceiling”. As The Globe and Mail reports, the current shutdown is just a dress rehearsal for the main event. Paul Ryan, one of the Republican Party’s attack dogs and Mitt Romney’s VP hopeful in the 2012 election, knows as much. From the New York Times:

One senior Republican, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, indicated that the stalemate could go on for at least two more weeks until the nation reaches its borrowing limit. He said the deadline to address the debt limit, and avoid a default, could be “the forcing mechanism to bring the two parties together.”

If this sounds mad, perhaps it is. Business journalist Doug Henwood sees the temptation to force default on the Treasury debt as one of “Several things [that strike]me as signs of rather profound rot,” even in the US right-wing. Writing in US left magazine Jacobin, he said:

It’s something of a mystery to me whom the current Republican party represents—surely it’s not classical Wall Street interests, because they wouldn’t be playing chicken with the status of Treasury bonds. But those Wall Street interests, and their friends in the Fortune 500, don’t seem to be sitting the back-benchers down for a lecture on their class duty. (Or if they are, the back-benchers aren’t listening.) 

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