Mr. Smith Won’t Be Going to Washington; He’s Been Furloughed

BY: JOHN BOGNA

The last time the government had to shut down was in 1995, when President Bill Clinton was in office. The shutdown lasted for 21 days.
The last time the government had to shut down was in 1995, when President Bill Clinton was in office. The shutdown lasted for 21 days.

Monday will mark one week since the partial government shutdown was put into effect by another characteristic Congressional gridlock. Literally thousands of civilian government workers have been furloughed, and the longer the shutdown continues, the more people are trimmed from the workforce. National parks have been closed (the shutdown started on Yosemite’s 123rd birthday) and park ranger staff has been cut back. The small businesses located near those parks are already suffering from the loss of cash normally brought in by tourism. Clinical trials of cancer medication conducted by the National Institute of Health have been put on hold due to understaffing. Museums and national monuments are closed down. The Canadian and British economies are on shaky ground waiting to see how we’ll affect them. All told, its snowballing into a mess that could easily have been avoided.

Of course, this is only a partial shutdown. Police, firefighters and military are all still working. Mail is being delivered. The FAA is still monitoring flights. But a government running on emergency backup generators (as it were) is in trouble even if its still running. The source of this strife is the passing of what’s called a “continuing resolution” (CR) to secure further funding for the government so it doesn’t default on its debts. Any rational human being would be quick to realize that an entire country not being able to pay its bills is definitely not a good thing, and that such an issue should be resolved as quickly as possible. Unfortunately Congress is not populated by overly rational people.

Rather, an extremely irrational minority in Congress is at the very heart of this problem. Around 30 Republicans are staunchly opposed to President Obama’s healthcare act, commonly referred to as “Obamacare.” When the demon of the shutdown loomed large, this group saw it as an opportunity to get those in Congress not opposed to Obamacare (as well as Obama himself) in an armlock and make them concede to the changes in healthcare reform that have so long eluded them. This, in my opinion, is an incredibly idiotic tactic.

Not only is this going to make people at large blame the entire Republican party for the shutdown and its ensuing misery, its going to alienate those members of the GOP that would vote to pass a continuing resolution free of any changes to the Affordable Care Act. According to an article by the Washington Post, GOP Rep. Charlie Dent actually began circulating a petition in September to try and get a CR passed without changes and avoid a shutdown. Dent says in the same article that a majority of Republicans would vote to pass such a resolution.

Not already having done so makes the entire party (not to mention all of Congress) seem petulant and childish, and the majority of Republicans don’t view that as favorable. Speaker Boehner has taken the side of this minority and has so far refused to change his stance on the issue: he will not vote to pass a CR unless it defunds Obamacare and does away with medical equipment taxes. The president and Democrats, on the other hand, refuse to give in to that stipulation and do not pass any legislation with changes to the healthcare act.

Because the Democrats won’t pass anything the Republicans send them and the few members of the GOP causing all this trouble in the first place keep the majority needed to pass rational legislation out of Republican hands, Congress is at a standstill. The whole thing is, as usual, a circus. And not even the good, Barnum and Bailey kind. The rinky-dink kind with the rides you’re afraid to get on because they’ve been set up and taken down so many times you just know they’re missing half the bolts keeping them together. It isn’t just one side that’s to blame, either.

The minority I mentioned earlier is at the heart of the problem, but no one else seems willing to slap them into shape. Their own party aren’t working hard enough to convince them to change their minds. The Democratic party is willing to sit back and let the GOP eat itself alive for their own political gain. Speaker Boehner could change this situation by making a compromise and allowing an unchanged CR to go through, but he’s afraid compromising would make him look bad to his constituents. Several news articles on the shutdown have speculated that if Boehner compromises, his tenure as speaker of the House could be at an end, but even Democrats have said he would probably be able to keep his seat even with a compromise. His concern is that his constituency will view him as weak and not vote him back in. And that’s what this has always been about: votes.

No one causing this problem seems to be interested in compromising on anything. The absolutist politics that have become an annoying hallmark of Washington are being used to grandstand to voters who, for the most part, have no idea what’s actually going on. Congressman Ted Cruz talked for 21 hours extolling his views on why a CR that defunds Obamacare should be passed, and at the time it was called a filibuster. In actuality, his speech did nothing to delay the law. Proving how hardline they are and securing votes has become more important to politicians than their actual jobs.

The reality is, It isn’t the voters’ job to make the laws. Its the job of those in Congress. They are answerable to the people but they must also consider what is best for those people, especially when they are in a position to understand the laws that affect us all more than anyone else. That is what it means to be in the profession of civil service. It is the job of Congress to be a well-oiled machine that keeps this nation running smoothly; to work together to reach the greatest good for everyone, not just themselves and their friends. It's a difficult job, but these people campaigned for it and were elected with full awareness of that difficulty. The way things are now has a feeling of coerciveness that is not at all helpful to getting things done; when someone tries to force someone else to do something, they dig their heels in that much harder. Congress should not immediately conjure to mind the image of children fighting over a toy.

Both sides are saying in the press that they never wanted this shutdown, and mourning the plight of the ones affected the most by it, but the fact that it was still allowed to happen makes those statements ring false. As the shutdown goes on, legislation is being passed to continue funding for certain government organizations and try to get money to those on furlough, but a CR to fully reopen the government still has not been passed. The Pentagon announced on Saturday that almost all furloughed civilian workers will be called back, but that still leaves thousands in the wind. Just enough assistance is being given to keep things going but not to alleviate the misery. This “piecemeal” approach is largely being rejected, so hopefully that will help lead to a speedier solution.

Some people think that too big of a deal is being made about all this. There is, after all, a large part of the nation not currently feeling anything from the shutdown. An article from the Daily Caller compared this shutdown with the last one during the Clinton administration in the 90s, citing statistics indicating that the economy was helped rather than hindered by the shutdown. The message seemed to be that the shutdown helped force a solution to issues like balancing the budget and welfare reform. I don’t believe that is a constructive way to look at our current problem.

We need to address the underlying problem of Congress’ attitude to cure it, not slap band-aids on the symptoms that the shutdown is now causing by picking which parts of the government to fund. If this isn’t resolved by October 17th, we will quickly default on our debts. The debt ceiling is also due to be renegotiated in the midst of all this. If Congress cannot put aside the petty squabbling that has painted them time and again as completely incompetent, it will have repercussions in the world economy. Canada and the UK are recovery more slowly from the 2008 recession than we are and do not need to be tipped back into economic crisis. Other countries could lose faith in us as well. So while the shutdown in ’95 may have had some beneficial effects, the environment more than a decade later and post-recession is vastly different. We should not view this as constructive or take it lightly because we should not even be at this point. There was no legitimate reason for a shutdown in the first place.