As a foreign observer of American politics, every now and then something will arise that is so alien as to be bordering on incomprehensible. The current Republican-led shutdown of the US government is perhaps the strongest example of this in recent memory.
The shutdown bombards your sense of logic from several sides at once. Just when you have finally got your head around the fact that such a thing is possible in the American political system, you are confronted with the knowledge that Congress allowed it to happen. Just as you are trying to understand why some people seem to think it is a good idea, you are forced to have to deal with the circumstances that brought it about. It is irrational on every level, and to an outsider, simply bizarre.
The shutdown essentially came about because Congress failed to agree a budget for the new fiscal year, which began on Tuesday. This is not uncommon, but usually results in a continuing resolution being passed – essentially an agreement to just carry on as before, for the time being. What was different in this case was that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives insisted on adding in language that would defund or delay Obamacare (The Affordable Care Act), which the Democrat-controlled Senate denied.
This inability to agree on a budget means that the ‘non-essential’ areas of the government have been forced to shut down until an agreement can be reached. In this time, an estimated 800,000 workers will go on unpaid leave, while another 1.3 million will see their paycheques delayed. National parks and museums have been closed and benefits, health programmes, and Head Start education programmes have been disrupted. It has been estimated that $300 million a day will be knocked off US economic output. Most worrying of all, the US is expected to hit the ‘debt ceiling’ (the legal limit of borrowing) on October 17th. If Congress has not agreed to raise this limit before then, the problem suddenly becomes far more serious. As Matthew Yglesias writes, ‘nobody really knows what will happen if we breach the debt ceiling because it’s never happened before. And everyone worries that it will be awful because nobody’s created any legal provision for not making it awful‘.
With so much at stake, one might wonder why the two sides could not just agree on a compromise to avoid this shutdown. Certainly, Republicans have been saying as much, complaining that the Democrats have not been willing to negotiate with them and compromise over Obamacare. They have mocked Barack Obama for being more willing to negotiate with Iran over nuclear weapons than with them over the budget, and blamed the Democrats completely.
The problem with this Republican position, however, is that Obamacare has already been debated and passed by both houses of Congress.
It has already been signed into law.
It has already been taken in front of the Supreme Court and ruled constitutional.
The Republicans even ran a presidential campaign on a platform of repealing Obamacare, ‘day one, job one’, and lost.
This shutdown is not about a pair of political parties refusing to meet the other one in the middle, it is about a desperate, radical right-wing section of the Republican party attempting to hold the country to ransom because they were unable to stop a bill they did not like becoming law. This is, as the President said, ‘one faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government [attempting] to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election‘. This is not a debate over Obamacare, this is an attempt at extortion; making America suffer until it gives in to their demands. And the country knows it. Poll after poll blames Republicans, no matter how hard they are trying to push the blame onto the Democrats, and the approval rating of Republicans in Congress has fallen to its lowest point ever.
This is what makes the shutdown so incomprehensible – this is not shrewd political manoeuvring by Machiavellian schemers, but rather the actions of ‘lemmings in suicide vests‘ as Republican Representative Devin Nunes put it. Pundits claim that Republican presidential hopefuls cannot afford to appear to be compromising their principles or they will have no chance in the presidential primaries. But is projecting an image of far-right anti-government demagoguery really going to help their electoral chances? Is forcing hundreds of thousands of workers into unpaid leave over an ideological squabble going to gain them votes? Is delaying people’s paycheques over a law that has been passed by all branches of government going to make them seem like sane statesmen worthy of the highest job? Does stopping children with cancer from receiving treatment, over a fight to deprive many more from healthcare, really count as a ‘principled stand’?
This is an illegitimate means of prolonging an already-lost battle, opposed by 72% of the nation and costing $1.6 billion a week. It is also an insult to a nation that twice elected Barack Obama on a platform of implementing healthcare reform. Despite all this, however, while the shutdown may have taken the headlines, Tuesday also saw the Affordable Care Act officially come into effect. So on the very same day that a group of Republicans shut down the government, a Democratic president made it possible for millions of uninsured Americans to gain access to health insurance.
House Republicans may continue to complain, but the President, Congress, the Supreme Court and the American people have spoken. Obamacare is here; and if they want the votes to change that, this bizarre spoiled-child act is unlikely to help.