With the US government currently shutdown, Emma Merrin asks why the most powerful country in the world can’t manage to keep its government open for business
The US government has been officially shut down. The US financial year ended on the 30th of September and the politicians from both chambers of congress failed to agree on a new budget. Without a budget in place, there is no legal agreement to pay non-essential federal employees. Simply put, the government cannot pay any member of the federal workforce.
This is the first shut down in 17 years. The last time this happened was in 1995-1996, under to Clinton government. That shutdown lasted 28 days. Shutdowns were a regular occurrence in the 1980s, but they only lasted for a few days at a time. In total, the American government has shutdown 17 times. Investors believe that this particular shutdown will be relatively short.
We cannot compare this situation to other countries, as no country has a government like the US. The president submits the budget, which needs to be passed by both houses before it can be signed into law.
The problem, according to the Cook Political Report, is “205 of 435 House districts are solidly Republican, basically impossible to lose without an unexpected bribery or sexting scandal. Only 163 districts are solidly Democratic. If Democrats swept the table and won all the districts currently rated as tossups or leaning Republican, they’d win 213 seats, five short of a majority.”
This is due to the gerrymandering of districts in favour of Republicans, as well as the fact that liberals tend to cluster in dense urban areas while conservatives often live rural areas. By comparison, the division of solid Republican to solid Democrat Senate seats is more even, and some argue that the Democrats have an advantage in the Electoral College that elects the president.
This means that it is unlikely that a situation will ever arise where one party will ever have a majority in both houses as well as the presidency. With the Tea Party movement in the Republicans moving them even further to the right, the US continues to be polarised by its differences. With two parties in government who so fervently disagree with each other, it’s almost impossible for them to do their jobs.
Having a legislature which is willing to compromise is vital. The Senate must approve many important presidential appointments, including cabinet officers, federal judges, department secretaries, U.S. military and naval officers, and ambassadors to foreign countries.
All legislative bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. The president is both head of state and the federal government, but without a guaranteed majority in either of the legislative bodies he cannot make legislation. The president can’t simply push laws through Capitol Hill. He needs the House of Representatives and the Senate to agree.
Contrary to popular belief, the issue which brought the government to standstill wasn’t just Obamacare, although the Republican dominated House of Representatives keep proposing more cuts and delays to Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. Republicans have been campaigning on the idea that the government is unnecessarily large for almost 40 years. This is a chance to shut down the government and hope that people look around and see, as Fox News put it, “the sky hasn’t fallen down.”
Their problem with Obamacare is not that they believe that people shouldn’t have healthcare, but that government should be limited in all aspects of people’s personal lives. The function of the government, in their minds, should be restricted to services such as the military, law enforcement and infrastructure.
Democrats say that they believe that Republicans are being driven by the most extreme elements of their party, the right-wing Tea Party, to use the federal budget to extract concessions on healthcare that they could not win through the traditional legislative process. The US government system is being effectively held for ransom.
The government shutdown isn’t the only problemm, it is raising fears over the debt ceiling. The legal limit that the USA has on borrowing currently sits at $16.7 trillion, and it’s likely to cross that in mid-October. The government needs to vote to extend the legal borrowing limit and if they don’t, they will run out of borrowing room and the world’s most powerful country and biggest economy will default on their debts.
The shutdown is cutting down on valuable time to fix the debt ceiling. Raising the debt ceiling involves legislation and Republicans are again trying to link the plan to Obamacare. They are arguing that healthcare reforms are unaffordable.
Many believe that the Republicans will, eventually, have to buckle. According to polls, most voters blame the Republicans, not the president, for the shutdown. Similarly, history shows that Republicans were blamed for the winter shutdown of 1995–1996.
No one is certain that Republicans will remain united on their insistence on healthcare concessions, especially if the shutdown lasts for some time. When Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia was asked whether Republicans could hold together through the end of the week, he replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
In short, the shutdown is a direct result of the conflict of two different ideas, from the two different parts of the Congress, led by the two major political parties. The Democrats and the Republicans are involved in a political stalemate. This is exacerbated by the fact that Republicans stated that their number one priority wasn’t good governance, or any particular reform, but to stop the Democrats from winning the election.
The shutdown and the fear that the debt ceiling will not be lifted are symptoms of a bigger problem in the US; namely the ideological divide between its two main parties and a government structured so that this is almost impossible to reconcile.
Additional contributions by Elizabeth O’Malley