The United States government – apart from functions deemed essential, most of which effect national security – has shut down because Congress has failed to authorize funds for the new fiscal year that began on October 1.
I have yet to find anyone describing the shutdown as a positive development. The shutdown jeopardizes the slow post-great recession of 2008 economic recovery. Not only are many federal employees and contractors furloughed without pay, but state employees paid with federal funds (thousands of people in each state) also face furloughs. Even if all of these people eventually receive the pay they would have earned without the furlough, as happened in past federal government shutdowns, the impact on the economy will be substantial, measured in billions of dollars.
Proposals to fund high-visibility government functions such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and National Park Service are gimmicks designed to make the shutdown more palatable while ignoring the shutdown's less visible, more significant harms to some of our nation's most vulnerable. For example, Head Start, shuttered until Congress passes a bill authorizing funding for Fiscal Year 2014, makes a proven difference in children's lives. The work of important agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and dozens of others has been disrupted. Refusing to fund the government is a dumb approach to fiscal austerity that harms most Americans.
The real issue, however, is not strictly or primarily fiscal. The real issue is that a small group of Republican Representatives, all affiliated with the Tea Party movement, is holding the government and the nation hostage. Those Representatives, and the voters who elected them, oppose the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Partisanship in Congress has sunk to the point where the majority party in the House of Representatives refuses to allow a vote on any resolution or motion for which the majority party, by itself, cannot guarantee the outcome. Although the Tea Party affiliated Representatives are all members of the majority (i.e., Republicans), the Tea Party Representatives comprise less than 15% of the House and less than 30% of the majority. In other words, a relative handful of Representatives are holding the government and nation hostage in an attempt to impose their will on the majority.
Living in a democracy occasionally requires accepting decisions with which one strongly disagrees. In prior Ethical Musings posts, I have argued for gun control, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for broadened access to healthcare and abortion, for gay marriage, and other positions at odds with the law of the land. Yet I abide by the law. I willingly pay my taxes, although I know that conceptually some small part of those tax dollars will fund programs with which I vehemently disagree. A nation in which people demand on having their own way, refuse to compromise, and are unwilling to live with laws and policies with which they disagree, ceases to be a functional nation.
The United States is rapidly heading toward dysfunction. Indeed, some people would contend that the U.S. has already reached that sad state of affairs when government's basic machinery has ceased to work.
In two weeks, economic difficulties will become worse. The U.S. will reach its debt ceiling, the amount of money that the nation can legally borrow. The deficit has exploded over the last couple of decades, and especially the last two presidential administrations. Both political parties are responsible. President George W. Bush was wrong to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan entirely through debt (I think he knew that additional taxes to pay for the wars would never pass Congress) and concurrently to cut taxes. President Obama was wrong to rely so heavily on debt to finance programs designed to reverse the steep increase in unemployment that occurred during the Great Recession. Congress was complicit in all of those decisions.
In the short run, the government's only viable option is to raise the debt ceiling. In the longer run, Americans must pay more taxes to fund government adequately and we must eliminate wasteful government spending while continuing to provide important services, e.g., stop throwing money down the drain in Iraq and Afghanistan but continue to ensure that we have a strong social safety net in this country.
Linking issues – such as funding the government, healthcare legislation, and the debt ceiling – seems certain to make difficult problems more intractable. Grand solutions that simultaneously solve multiple problems are almost assuredly impossible in today's highly partisan, acrimonious political climate. Instead, we may make more progress by looking to parse larger issues into smaller problems, seeking agreement where that can be found and agreeing to compromises elsewhere.
Sadly, failing to find a path forward places the U.S. on a par with other dysfunctional nations in which democracy, perhaps for other reasons, does not exist or does not work, e.g., Russia, Italy, and Mexico.
Congress works for us. Tell them to do their job, to fund the government, to preserve democracy, and to model good citizenship for the rest of us.