US Government Shutdown

So you’ve heard that the US government is in shutdown. Among other things, national parks are closed, sanctions can’t be enforced against Iran and cancer drug trials at the National Institutes of Health are on hold. But what caused this shutdown, why is it dragging on for so long, and how it can be solved?

The main duty of Congress in the US Constitution is to pass spending bills that fund the government. Failing to do so means everything from funding intelligence agencies to processing passport requests comes to a stop.

House Republicans have refused to pass the new spending bill unless Obamacare is defunded, delayed or dismantled. President Obama’s landmark legislation, known more formally as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, extends insurance to about 30 million Americans through subsidised private insurance or government-provided Medicaid.

In extraordinarily unfortunate timing, the US government faces another looming crisis, that of a debt crisis. The US government has a $16.69 trillion debt ceiling, which it hit in May. The Treasury Department has been using what are called extraordinary measures to keep paying the bills, but these will be exhausted by 17 October. After that, it will no longer be able to borrow money to make up the difference between expenses and revenue, relying solely on the $30 billion in cash it has on hand. After 17 October, without the debt ceiling being lifted, the US government will eventually have to start defaulting on some of its obligations. According to a report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, it won’t be able to meet 30% of its obligations.

Although it is hard to believe, the consequences of a debt default could be much, much worse than the current US government shutdown. International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has warned that failure by Washington to raise the federal debt ceiling would wreak serious damage on not only the US, but the global economy.

So where do things currently stand? The Republicans have just offered President Obama a short-term debt limit increase in exchange for Obama’s “willingness to sit down and discuss with us a way forward to reopen the government and to start to deal with America’s pressing problems.” These negotiations would likely take the form of talks on long-term deficit reduction and Obamacare. Obama has been steadfast however, in saying that the debt ceiling needs to be raised and government reopened, as a precondition to any talks.

Senate Majority Leader and Nevada Democrat Harry Reid rejected the possibility of negotiations with Republicans as long as the government remained closed, informing reporters “It’s not going to happen.”

In a hopeful sign, Republican Representative Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman and Mitt Romney’s running mate in the presidential elections last year, argued in an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal that Democrats and Republicans need to focus on “modest reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code.” Focusing on spending cuts to domestic and military programs, as well as reforming Medicare, but not mentioning Obamacare, it signals a strategy of separating the debt ceiling negotiations from negotiations to reopen the US government.

While the Republicans have attempted to pass bills to fund certain parts of the government, such as the Veterans Administration and the National Park Service, Democrats have resisted these attempts, insisting that the entire government be reopened. A legal review of the “Pay Our Military Act”, signed by Obama on the eve of the government shutdown, has meant that 90% of civilian employees, or 350, 000-odd worker in the Department of Defense can return to work. However, much of the rest of the federal government remains shuttered. Even the White House has not been untouched, with 3 of the 4 workers furloughed. Of the 1, 701 advisers, assistants, butlers and other staff who work in the White House, fewer than 450 are on duty at the present time.

It is hardly surprising, but with the government now in its second week and a potential default only days away, many Americans are observing the political clash with disdain, anger and frustration. While the Republicans get a lot of the flak, with a new Associated Press-GfK poll showing that 62% mainly blamed the Republicans for the gridlock, Obama has earned the ire of many Americans too. In the same poll, 52% believed the president was not doing enough to cooperate with the Republicans.

As the crisis continues to unfold, we can only hope that cooler heads prevail, and come to a solution that ensures that America can move forward. Perhaps it was a senior citizen by the name of Freda Wilhite, living in Raleigh, North Carolina, who put it best. “Somebody should give a little and somebody should give a little more. I don’t know how to fix it. I just know I don’t like it.” And that’s the crux of the matter. Continuing to make American citizens bear the brunt of ideological obstinacy would be a failure of these elected representatives to do their most important job: govern.