October 6th 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The US Congress has shut down the US federal government by refusing to pass the US federal government budget effective from midnight September 30. US’ financial year is from October 1 to September 30. Explicitly, it is the Republicans in the House of Representatives who hold the majority who have caused the shutdown. Even more explicitly, it is the small caucus or faction in the Republican Party known in Washington as the Tea-Party faction, a group of 70, is responsible for the present unbelievable predicament of the US government. In fact, it is even a smaller group within the Tea Party faction that has caused the shutdown.
The whole political drama has emerged out of the opposition of the Republican Party to a flagship legislation of President Obama on healthcare. Officially called the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the legislation has been the major issue of conflict between the Republicans and the Democrats in recent times. Although the ACA was passed by both Houses of the Congress and signed into law in March 2010, it was nevertheless a major issue upon which the presidential election was fought last year. President Obama won the election convincingly. The Republicans fought the law in the Supreme Court that ruled it as constitutional. Thus, the ACA Act was set to go into execution from October 1.
The Tea Party members of the US House of Representatives fought the ACA at the grassroots in the 2012 House elections. They were elected by their conservative constituents to fight the Act in order to de-legalise it. Of course, they did not have the numbers. They influenced the other members of their Party in the House to join their opposition to the Law. They demanded that the ACA should be scrapped but did not have the majority in Senate to do so. They therefore used the Republican Party’s majority in the House to force the government to defer the ACA for a year and tied such a demand with their approval to fund the government for the next financial year starting from October 1.
The President firmly turned down the demand, stressing that the government would not give in to what he called “blackmail”. He insisted that the ACA has become law and the Supreme Court has declared it as constitutional. He therefore dismissed the demand of the Republican Party as unacceptable. He offered to sit with the Republicans to negotiate with aspects of the Act to improve it but not under threat of shutdown of the government. He insisted, however, that he would not do anything to take away from the average American their right to healthcare that has historically been denied to them, as they were unable to buy costly health insurance. In fact, US is the only developed country where nearly 50 million of its citizens do not have healthcare and have to treat themselves with off the counter medicine by self-doctoring!
The House Republicans have set the United States on course where the outcome would be harmful to the country by every consideration. The President is legally and politically in no position to oblige the Republicans. The Republicans cannot hold defunding the government indefinitely. The last time the Congress did something comparable was 17 years ago when President Clinton was in office and that shutdown had lasted for 21 days. This time, at the time of filing this article, the way out is uncertain. There is however another dangerous conservative agenda coming on October 17 that the GOP would like to bring into play.
October 17 is the deadline for Congress to raise the debt ceiling. The GOP has said that it will not raise the debt ceiling unless the request is tied to cut in government expenditure. The Republicans would like to keep the government on leash on the shutdown till it gets it to act according to its demand on the debt ceiling. The demand on the debt ceiling is even more dangerous in the context of the possible consequences. The denial to pass the budget has placed the government on a course towards peril with 800,000 of three million federal employees sent home on leave without pay, the government has also ceased to provide essential services. Apart to hardships to these federal workers, the shutdown is causing the government US$ 1 billion a week! The refusal to raise the debt ceiling would force the US to default on its international payments and adversely impact on US economy in a manner whose damage would reverberate for years to come.
The irrationality in GOP’s demands on the issue of passing the budget and the debt ceiling was brought home to Americans when President Obama addressed the nation on the first day of the shutdown. On the opposition to the ACA, President Obama explained that it was made into law within the due process of the American Constitution and Americans have backed it when they voted him to power last tine. The Supreme Court also declared it as constitutional. On the debt ceiling, President Obama said since the Reagan administration, the Congress has on more than 40 occasions considered requests from the White House for raising the debt ceiling and has passed such requests each time without a question as a routine matter. He further explained that the request for raising the debt ceiling would not lead to the US tax payer taking even an extra cent of liability and that the government would not be able to spend an extra cent without appropriation of the Congress even after its approval to increase the debt ceiling.
In their frustration, the GOP is restating, or trying to do so, the US system of government. On a CNN talk show, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich defended the action of the Tea Party faction. He said in USA, the legislature and the executive are equal under the Constitution. Therefore the argument that the ACA cannot be scrapped because it is the law and the President had won support for the Act from the people is not good because the legislators who are now trying to bring it down have the right to do so because the people who elected them want it. What the former Speaker failed to bring into his argument is the fact that only a small number of Republicans belonging to Tea Party faction have caused the shutdown.
In fact, according to reports, only 20 or so Tea Party members were actually responsible for the unbelievable shutdown. It is now common knowledge that if Speaker John Boehner puts the issue to vote, it would pass the House easily as many Republicans was ready to do so. Across the country, opinion polls have shown that great majority of the people are opposed to the shutdown and would want it to end immediately. In one poll, 46% have blamed the Republican Party against 36% who blamed the Democrats. While the Republicans have been blamed for their irrational and unreasonable attitude, the Democrats have been faulted for their adamant attitude not to negotiate the ACA by an attitude that the Republicans have described as “my way or the highway.”
Hopefully, the shutdown would end soon and rationality would return in the Congress. Till that happens, the shutdown has come for those who have little knowledge on how the US system operates as something unbelievable. We who lose our sleep over the senselessness of hartals in Bangladesh may take heart that in the country that is the world’s only Super Power, something more inexplicable is happening. A small caucus or faction of, as reports suggest, 20 legislators within one of the major parties of the country that holds the majority in the Congress has brought the government to a standstill and there is little the country’s powerful President, the rest of the Congress, in fact the rest of the country where there is widespread anger and frustration, can do unless and until the Tea party legislators see reason.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador