Monday, October 14, 2013

On the US government shutdown


Published : Monday, 14 October 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Republican Party, also known as the Grand Old Party (GOP), has shut down the Government of the United States of America since the 1st of October. The shutdown occurred when the GOP used its majority in the House of Representatives (232-200) to stop funding the federal government for the new US financial year that starts on the 1st of October. It stopped the funding to force the White House to either scrap the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also called Obamacare or defer it for another year. 

In reality, it is a small faction of extreme right-wing activists within the GOP, called the Tea Party, a group of about 70 legislators, who have shut down the US government. They have not allowed the Speaker John Boehner to put the budget to vote because there are enough GOP legislators who differ on the shutdown strategy and ready to vote to pass the budget bill. Emboldened by the ease with which these Tea Party legislators were able to shut down the government, they have now moved to a more dangerous ground for the USA. They have threatened to deny the President's routine request to raise the debt ceiling that would force the US Government to default on its international payments for the first time in history, if not granted by October 17.

At the time of filing this article, the 12th day of the shutdown (October 13), the political scenario in Washington is both depressing and embarrassing. The depression emerges from the fact that there are no signs of the shutdown ending soon. The economic impact of the shutdown has started to have domino effect on a whole range of sectors and businesses. Small and big businesses have started to feel the adverse effects of the shutdown. These sectors are the traditional voters of the GOP. The rich businesses are more threatened by the debt ceiling issue. They suspect that if the USA defaults on its overseas payments, the effects would be nothing short of an economic tsunami. 

The embarrassment is interesting. For those not abreast with US constitution and politics, it sounds unbelievable that the US at the moment has no functional federal government. Yet, this is not the first time such a thing has happened in the country. Since 1970s, the Congress has shut down the government 20 times, the last in 1995-96 for 21 days. This happens because of the way the US constitution has been framed. The US constitution is based on separation of powers where theoretically the executive and the legislature are equally powerful. The framers, of course, gave the two organs equal power so that each would check the power of the other to protect government from becoming dictatorial. Unfortunately, the framers did not anticipate the way politics and politicians would turn out centuries after they had framed the constitution. In the last shutdown in 1995-96, then Speaker New Gingrich shut down the federal government for 17 days costing billions of dollars because he was offended by President Clinton while on a trip to Tel Aviv for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

The reason for the current shutdown is even more unbelievable. The GOP did not like Obamacare but nevertheless it was enacted into law in 2011. In the last presidential election, Mitt Romney promised he would annul it, if elected. He lost the election comprehensively. The GOP pursued Obamacare in the Supreme Court that ruled it constitutional. That did not deter the GOP that started its efforts against Obamacare after it won the majority in the House last year. The White House refused to be pressured arguing ACA is a law and the President could not do anything to it. He, nevertheless, expressed willingness to discuss the Act with the GOP. 

The GOP arguments against the ACA have not been explained in a manner that average Americans would be able to understand clearly. A GOP Congressman tweeted after the shutdown that the party wanted respect but he was not really sure what he and his colleagues really wanted to achieve from the shutdown. There is, though, a method in the madness if one looked at what the extremists or the Tea Party really represent. They represent constituencies of hard-core conservatives distributed mainly in rural USA who consider the government as a demon. Hence, they oppose the government even where it has their interests in mind as with Obamacare that has been designed to make healthcare available to almost 50 million Americans who are so poor that they cannot afford it.

The Tea Partyers are apparently oblivious of the fact that they have made America the object of ridicule worldwide as well as brought the country to its worst economic disaster imaginable because they believe that their constituents would receive them as heroes for humiliating the federal government!

President Obama has called the strategy of the Tea Party leaders that the rest of the GOP is backing for fear of becoming unpopular to their conservative constituencies, as blackmail and has said steadfastly that he would not give in to ransom. Responding to President Obama's offer to negotiate only after the shutdown was lifted, Boehner said the President wanted the GOP to "surrender totally". Many thought that was an inadvertent slip that in reality reflected the fact that the GOP was holding the country to "ransom" and "blackmail" as the President had said they were because the Speaker's language was what hostage takers use.

The Speaker john Boehner is clearly hostage to the Tea Partyers who have threatened to make his speakership history if he put the issue to vote because it would pass, leaving few in doubt that the House has fallen prey to a group of extremists. That there is deep contempt for the Tea Partyers across the country that have also fallen upon the GOP and has been reflected in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls that show the GOP's national standing at an all-time low at 24 per cent and that of the Tea Party at 21 per cent. 53 per cent blame the GOP against 31 per cent, the President for the shutdown. The GOP, many fears, are certain to lose their majority in the House in next year's elections.

In the midst of the unbelievable political drama, there are many who are regretting that the framers of the US constitution did not opt for a parliamentary system. They are looking at Europe with envy. It seems like the future of US's constitutional politics is certain to be dominated by fight between the two organs of the government where the authority of the President would be in serious threat, a point that President Obama has already made. A nagging thought is lingering among a lot of people whether there was a deep meaning in what Congressman Mark Meadows had said during the 2012 presidential elections of taking the country back and sending "Mr. Obama home to Kenya or wherever that is." Perhaps conservative America is regretting that a black American - and that too with a Muslim middle name - has found his way to the White House, not once but two times.

The writer is a retired career diplomat.

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