To many, the shutdown of the US federal government is baffling. The consequences are as obvious as they are damaging, the way to a solution open and clear. And yet on October 1, at midnight, the massive bureaucratic apparatus that runs the US federal government all but ground to a halt.
Altogether, some 800,000 “nonessential” employees have been placed on unpaid furlough, many services have been rendered unavailable, the websites of such iconic institutions as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Library of Congress have been shuttered—and (the consequence with the most immediate impact in this part of the world) the scheduled visit of US President Barack Obama to the Philippines and Malaysia next week has been cancelled.
How did the world’s lone superpower come to such a sorry pass?
The long and short answer is: A minority of Republicans in the US Congress wanted it that way. Senior American journalist James Fallows pinpoints “two basic facts” about the shutdown that “would come as news to most of the public.”
First: “If the House of Representatives voted on a ‘clean’ budget bill—one that opened up the closed federal offices but did not attempt to defund the Obama healthcare program—that bill would pass, and the shutdown would be over.” And second: “So far House Speaker John Boehner has refused to let this vote occur.”
We will not pretend that both the Democrats and the Republicans are equally at fault; as the title of an influential op-ed by scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein in the Washington Post in April last year phrased it: “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”
Their key paragraph reads: “The GOP [Grand Old Party] has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
What has become clear in the slow-motion descent into shutdown limbo is that only a handful of Republican congressmen—maybe 30 to 40 “true hardliners,” according to National Review’s Washington editor Robert Costa—stand between a vote on a “clean” funding bill and a continuing shutdown. They are applying pressure on Boehner, to link a delay in the implementation of Obama’s signature healthcare programme with a vote on the bill necessary to keep the US federal machinery working. By almost all accounts, Boehner has the numbers necessary, from enough Republicans and most of the Democrats, to pass the bill; but he hasn’t allowed a vote, precisely because it would pass.
Passage, in all likelihood, would mean a second attempt among Republicans to unseat him.
In this sense, the politics of the shutdown of 2013 is not a true guide to the difference between money (in the form of the pork barrel and other incentives) and ideology, as drivers of political action. The hardliners in the US Congress, many of them elected into office on surging Tea Party momentum in 2010 and 2012, are correctly described as extreme not because of their ideology but because of their dismissiveness of the fundamental legitimacy of the Obama presidency. Let’s just say it: Insurgent Republicans have a problem with their country’s first black president.
That the link the hardliners insist on is to the Affordable Care Act is the giveaway. The so-called Obamacare represents a true landmark in the American political experience, a hard-fought legislative victory that no other American president had achieved. Since its enactment into law, it has been upheld by a Supreme Court with a Republican majority and validated by a presidential election. And yet the Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted again and again to try to repeal the law, to defund it, and finally “just” to delay its implementation by a year. By any measure of democracy the United States holds itself to, Obamacare has passed the test.
The irony is: Obamacare took effect on October 1, the same day the US federal government shut down. Millions of Americans tried accessing the online marketplaces that the new law had made possible, resulting in server crashes and technical glitches. Policy wonk Ezra Klein summed up the situation nicely: “Washington was shut down because Republicans don’t want Obamacare. On the other hand, Obamacare was nearly shut down because so many Americans wanted Obamacare.”
Unfortunately, extremists will remain unmoved by the facts and the evidence.