Shutdown

Shutdown

MINA OMAR LEAD FEATURES EDITOR

THOMAS RISINGER LEAD NEWS EDITOR

For the first time since Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1996, the United States government shutdown. National Parks and monuments were closed indefinitely and hundreds of thousands of government employees were asked to stay at home indefinitely.

After a string of last-minute attempts by Congress to stave off the looming deadline by which time a new budget for the coming fiscal year had to be approved, no consensus had been reached, and the government was beginning to grind to a halt.

The shutdown was not inevitable but rather a product of partisanship within the government.  Each year, Congress must approve the United States’ budget, which, in its most basic form, dictates how much and where the government can spend the money collected from its taxpayers.

Traditionally, this process is fraught with political bargaining. Both parties, Republican and Democratic, use the process of approving the budget as an opportunity to gain political leverage over one another. This most recent budget negotiation, however, degenerated into such high levels of political partisanship that Congress and the government were completely paralyzed because no agreement could be reached.

ASL Parent and Minister Counselor for Management at the U.S. Embassy to the Court of St. James Lawrence Richter described the frustration and helplessness of government employees at this time. “To me, it goes along with being a government employee. We don’t make policy; [we just] serve our political masters on this and it is kind of a recognition that we are working for a government that is pretty strongly divided right now and there are policy, disagreements,” he said.  “We just have to work around the people who are actually in charge of the budget. It is not fun to have to put things on hold and to work in that kind of uncertainty.”

However, the contention that immobilized Congress was based on another piece of legislation: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare”, as it is commonly known. Obamacare is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s first term legislative achievements and has been a large part of his platform since he ran for office.

The Act aims to increase the number of Americans with health insurance by requiring citizens purchase suitable plans. It was passed by the House of Representatives on March 21, 2010 and signed into law by Obama on March 23, 2010. However, the current Republican-controlled House of Representatives, driven by the far right-wing conservative Tea Party, refused to let it come to fruition. They, instead, insisted that no government budget would be approved for the 2013-14 fiscal year if it contained financing for Obamacare.

With no fiscal budget agreed upon by midnight on October 1, the government was out of alternatives. As of that moment, all government employees who had been categorized as “non-essential” were furloughed without pay until further notice. This, however, did not include employees managing Obamacare, which still went active at midnight on October 1 despite the best efforts of the Republican party.

Richter was categorized as an essential employee during the shutdown, as were all of his State Department colleagues, and worked throughout. Richter described himself as head of the management section at the embassy, which places him in charge of daily operations, personnel, and the budget of the Embassy.

As the shutdown continued, Richter, personally, was not as negatively impacted as many other government employees. “For a portion of the embassy, [the shutdown] did not have any effect at all and the reasons for that are complicated. The State Department gives its money over a period of two years so we can spend it over two years. So even though the government shut down, the State Department was still able to use money that it had in its accounts [to pay its employees and fund necessary activities],” Richter said.

Richter felt that a lot of the strain caused by the shutdown occurred behind the scenes. The State Department was forced to cancel many of its meetings but was still able to carry out consular services to those looking to apply for U.S. visas. “We cut back on the non-essential things. We knew we only had a certain amount of money left,” he said. “It was a little bit like being in a life raft. You don’t eat all your food at once. You ration.”

Social Studies Teacher Becky Mason believes that the U.S. is in a cycle that will continue repeating itself until a long-term solution can be found. “They keep going through these deadlines. They agree on a new date, but they are just pushing [the problem] off and it never seems to be a long-term agreement where [Congress] will give themselves the time to work on a long term compromise,” she said.

Mason sees this recent cycle, that led to the shutdown, as a continuation of the general trend that has been in politics for the past several decades. “During the 90s there was a lot of partisanship. Then the George Bush years were also partisan because of the election with Gore and [the] Iraq war,” she said. “Modern U.S. politics is very partisan and [the parties] don’t  work together.”

Social Studies Teacher Terry Gladis agreed with Mason’s sentiments and feels as if the U.S. government has done a disservice to all citizens by allowing the shutdown to take place. “The fact that the Republicans, the Democrats and Congress as a whole allowed it to get to that point is inexcusable. When the government can’t function it is hurting every single citizen of the United States,” Gladis said.

Gladis’ claim that the shutdown affected all citizens of the United States is supported by the facts. More than 800,000 government employees were furloughed throughout the duration of the shutdown. Furthermore, according to an initial analysis from Standard & Poor’s, the 16-day government shutdown took $24 billion out of the United State’s economy. As a result of this massive loss, the U.S. economy is also expected to gross less than originally expected and consumer confidence is low. “Seventy percent of the money that is spent in the U.S. is spent on consumer goods. If consumer confidence is shot, where are you going to go with that?” Gladis asked.

Additionally, Gladis feels as if the shutdown was detrimental for the United States’ image as a world power. “It showed that we are a completely dysfunctional nation. I think that even internationally, people realized that we have developed extreme factions in our politics that are winning out,” he said.

Mason believes that any damage done to the image of the United States abroad will not trouble the government. “This reinforces some negative stereotypes people have about America, that [America] can’t get it together. Unfortunately this isn’t necessarily a large concern to the U.S. government,” she said.

The “extreme faction” that Gladis referred to is a small group in the Republican party. The Republican party is lead by Speaker of the House John Boehner. According to a poll conducted by CNN, more than 60 percent of Americans now think that Boehner should be removed from his position as Speaker of the House. Gladis believes that Boehner and the other republicans were able to “win out” by convincing moderate Republicans to join their cause. “The extreme faction has been able to manipulate so many people that are in the middle to cut the line and say ‘you know what, anything that is going to help the Democratic party or Obama, we are going to say no to.’ It’s a first grade mentality,” he said.

All in all, it took 16 days for a compromise to be drawn out and passed by Congress. The Bill passed provided funding for Obamacare, and was therefore considered to be a victory for both Obama and the Democratic Party. This breakthrough was motivated by an announcement made by the Treasury Department that running out of money to fund existing government obligations was a possibility within the next day. On account of this, some Republicans, in order to avoid a global economic crisis, crossed party lines to support the Bill providing funding for the government and ended the shutdown.

Although the government shutdown ended several weeks ago, Gladis still has a very pessimistic mindset about the direction that  the U.S. government is heading and does not believe it will be moving in a positive direction at any point in the near future. “The Constitution is an amazing document but it doesn’t work without the people that have to apply it to the rest of the American public,” he said. “To me, it’s broken. Washington D.C. and the U.S. government is broken.”

mina_omar@asl.org

thomas_risinger@asl.org