Saturday, 05 October 2013
Author / Source: M. Serajul Islam
Believe it or not, the US Congress has closed down the US government indefinitely since the 1st of October. The Republican Party controlled House of Representative refused to pass the budget to fund the federal government for the new US financial year that starts on 1st of October. The Republican Party refused to pass the budget to force the President to scrap the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that was scheduled to become effective from the 1st of October. The GOP wanted the President either to scrap the ACA or defer it for another year.
Under pressure to scrap the ACA or defer it, the President remained steadfast. He insisted that he would not give in to what he called blackmail. The President made clear that the ACA is not negotiable for irrefutable reasons. First, it has become the law, passed in both Houses of the Congress and singed into law by the President in March 2010. Second, the ACA was a major issue in the last presidential election. President Obama won that election convincingly and thus also a mandate for the ACA. Third, the Act was taken to the US Supreme Court that ruled it as constitutional. The President wanted the Republican Party to de-link the ACA from the budget and assured that he would sit with the Congress to discuss elements of the Act that were of concern to them.
The President had another major reason to remain steadfast. United States is the only country in the developed world where almost 50 million people are outside the healthcare system. These people have only medicine available across the counter to treat themselves by “self-doctoring.” Under the ACA, every American would have to take health insurance or face a tax penalty. The penalty has been designed to bring every American under the healthcare system. The Act has various slabs of health insurance and has been designed to be affordable to even the poor of the country. A major element of the ACA is that it compels insurance companies to insure individuals with previous healthcare issues and removes the cap that previously allowed insurance companies to stop payment when costs reached a ceiling.
The ACA is by no means the perfect and there could be amendments to improve it. However, the GOP opposes it for reasons that are very difficult to understand unless one looks at it with the mindset of a conservative American. The opposition emerges from the cardinal belief of the conservatives that the less the government involvement in the lives of the people, the better is governance. For that, if America failed to provide healthcare to a huge number of its unfortunate citizens, so be it! It is not just this tragic fact that fails to motivate the conservatives in the United States towards universal healthcare, the fact that under existing system patients are sent home to die because of the ceiling do not encourage them to look favourably at the ACA.
There is another element in the unbelievable political drama in which the US government finds itself. The predicament has been caused not by the Republican Party acting together united and opposed to the ACA. The situation has been caused by a smaller faction within the GOP known in Washington as the Tea Party faction. The Tea Party faction is a group of legislators organized predominantly in the House of Representatives who came together in 2010 to represent extremist views of their constituents who see little or nothing good in the federal government. They therefore oppose almost all rational endeavour of the government that means spending and/or extending the activities of the government or as now is the case with the shut down, even the existing functions of the government. The Tea Party, since it emerged, has created many obstacles to governance but nothing of the scale as in the current shut down.
The Tea Party faction is a group of 70 or so legislators that was established as a faction within the Republican Party in 2010 is trying to force the Party towards extremist position on all issues of governance. It was widely reported that had the House Speaker John Boehner shown the courage to take the budget bill to the floor of the House, it would have been passed with enough Republicans willing to support the House Democrats as they saw the dangers and the irrationality of their Tea party colleagues to force the shut down. The shut down, depending on how long it continues, would have dangerous consequences upon the federal government forcing losses up to many billions of dollars. Nearly 800,000 of the country’s 3 million employees have been sent home on leave without pay and many services of the government have stopped.
America’s standing has thus taken a major beating internationally leading an African leader to call the US “a banana republic.” However, from the standpoint of US’ position internationally, the real threat is still ahead. The Republican Party, urged by the Tea Party, is gearing to deny the President’s request for raising the debt ceiling.
The deadline for a green signal to that White House request is October 17th. In the present uncompromising mood of the Tea Party faction, that request tied to proposals to cut down federal expenditure, is also likely to be turned down. That would be a major catastrophe because that would cause US to default on its overseas payments. If events came down to that, US would lose even its claim to be a “banana republic.”
President Obama addressed the nation the day after the shut down. His explanation of the present shutdown and the possibility of a denial to raise the debt ceiling left many wondering whether the US is really sliding towards a big political black hole. President Obama explained the ACA and why he could not give in to the GOP demands, as it was already the law of the land, a law enacted by the due process and mandated by the people. On the debt ceiling, he explained that since the Reagan administration, over 40 requests for raising debt ceilings were sent to the House and all granted as a routine manner and approved as such. He further explained that the executive branch couldn’t spend a single cent without appropriation of the Congress and hence tying debt ceiling to government expenditure is nothing but a strategy tantamount to blackmailing the administration.
Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker, made a very interesting point on the current impasse in US politics. He argued that in the US system, the executive and the legislature are equally powerful. Therefore, if the President felt that the AH cannot be scrapped because it has the support of the people, the same argument can be made by the legislators to scrap it because they were elected by the people to do so! Clearly, rationality is taking leave of those the rest of the world has been led to believe were the best of legislators! In fact, the legislators who have shut down the government in Washington are politicians who have the same mindset as politicians who support hartal in Bangladesh.
A final point on the incredible drama now unfolding in Washington is the issue of name. The ACA is popularly called the Obamacare. In an interview, respondents were asked whether they supported the ACA. They answered positively but with a few reservations. When they were asked about Obamacare, the response was unconditionally negative. When the interviewer pointed out the two were the same, they replied that they did not know! In fact, many analysts feel that the ACA has run into trouble because of its name and there many see a clear sign of the racial content of the present shut down of the US federal government.
The longer the Republicans delay funding the government, the more the blame will fall on the Party with a Washington Post/ABC poll showing only 26% approving the shut down, with special ire for the Republican Party that could be creating for itself a disaster for the House elections in 2014. A Washington Post editorial on October 2nd has called the House a “House of Embarrassment” out of utter frustration.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador