COLUMN: Shame: The GOP And Shutdown Politics
Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 19:10
It seems Democrats and Republicans agree on nothing these days, but on this we can all surely agree: American politics have reached a depressingly low point in recent weeks.
I’m writing this column on Monday night, so I don’t yet know whether the parties will have come together to reopen the government and avert a default of financially-devastating proportions. But I know the dysfunction Congress has displayed over the past weeks and months as it failed to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government, sending hundreds of thousands of workers home with no pay. In some ways, it’s shocking that we’ve been brought so low. In other ways, it’s shocking that it took this long. In any case, it is abundantly clear that reports of Congress’ demise have been greatly understated.
The situation is chillingly simple: in order for the government to function, Congress must pass a law to decide how to spend our money. Since House Republicans have refused to move forward on the process of passing an actual budget, the government has been funded for some time through short-term measures called continuing resolutions, which allocate funds for a few months before requiring renewal. On Oct. 1, our last CR expired, and the money ran out. Simple as that. In one moment, as the clock changed from 11:59 to 12:00, 800,000 federal workers were suddenly unable to receive paychecks, and 19,000 Head Start students were jeopardized as funding for their education dried up. Also, NIH clinical trials, which serve as a lifeline for hundreds of patients every day, were unable to provide lifesaving treatments. All in all, the shutdown costs our economy $10 billion every week, economic activity we can’t afford to lose at a critical moment in our recovery.
So if the shutdown is so bad, why didn’t Congress pass another continuing resolution? Well, a group of about 80 lawmakers in the House, all Republicans, decided that Obamacare was so bad, they wouldn’t vote for any measure that provided any funds for implementation of the law. They despise the Affordable Care Act so much that they would rather see the government shut down than work with the administration to improve it. Of course, they knew this would never happen—even if the Senate passed a continuing resolution defunding Obamacare, the president would veto it—but they refused to drop the charade, right up until the point where they shut down the government. Here’s the thing: the Senate voted on (and rejected) the CRs passed by the House, a tough vote for red state Democrats to take. But the House never even brought the Senate-passed measure, which left Obamacare funding intact, up for a vote, even though it’s clear it could garner enough Republican support to reopen the government. Speaker of the House John Boehner knows that he could open the government tomorrow with a small coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, but he’s refused to call that vote for two weeks, because he’s terrified of the radical elements of his caucus. It’s obvious who’s really calling the shots now: the Tea Party has taken over the Republican Party.
In many ways, it’s sad. It’s sad that we can be nostalgic for the good old days when Republicans weren’t actually crazy enough to shut down the government. It’s sad that the precedent has now been set that shutting down the government is a legitimate political tactic (because, guess what, we’re going to be dealing with another CR fight in a few months). But it’s especially sad to see the Republican Party putting politics ahead of people so starkly. I’m not saying they should be wild about Obamacare, because Obamacare isn’t perfect. Reforming our broken healthcare system is hard and it will take time. But it’s sad to see Republicans jump so far to the right that they would rather see food inspectors sent home, they would rather see infants be denied nutritional assistance, and they would rather see cancer patients lose access to lifesaving care than sit down at the table with the president and work to improve the law. Because while they may not like Obamacare, we can all agree that our healthcare system needs change. We can all agree that more people should be able to have health insurance for a lower cost. And once we agree on that, we can have a discussion. But Republicans have no interest in discussion—their modus operandi is political theater, avoiding anything resembling cooperation with Democrats and the White House, no matter the cost to the American people.
Ultimately, Obamacare is the law of the land. It was passed by both houses of Congress, signed into law by the president, upheld by the Supreme Court, and the president who signed it was re-elected by a wide margin. Maybe Republicans don’t like it, and I can empathize with that. Like many Democrats of my generation, I grew up despising the war in Iraq. I never understood why we sent so many Americans to die with such dubious justification. I may not be a Democrat were it not for that war. But it would have been irresponsible for Democrats to shut down the government in an attempt to defund the war in Iraq. There are simply too many things at stake that are important to Americans to justify holding the economy hostage over a single issue.
Maybe it’ll be over by the time this piece runs. I hope so. I certainly hope that Boehner comes to his senses, finds his political courage, and calls a vote to reopen the government. But even when they do, Americans will remember the GOP brinksmanship that shut down our government. Americans will remember the reckless disregard for our nation’s interests that Republicans displayed throughout this ordeal. We’ll remember it in 2014 and we’ll remember it the next time a Republican tries to tell us to trust them with the economy. The GOP has violated the oath they took to represent their constituents, and for that, they should be ashamed.