Federal Government Shutdown: Voters Hold the Trump Card

Day 2 of the federal government shutdown.  What’s the latest? It’s unclear.  How long will it last? It’s unclear. What’s at stake? Plenty…  from the well-being of millions of American families to the framework for our legislative democracy.

Every day in America, there are families who depend in some way on the government.  Some of them are low wage families with children who depend on modest assistance in order to work, including

Other families with older children may be depending on college loans (grants continue, loans are a question at this point).  Nearly 20 million students attend college every year with about 12 million who take out loans to afford the cost.  The actual number couldn’t be verified for this blog post since the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is federally funded and its web site is shut down.

The collateral impact of Congress’ inability to pass a budget on time is far beyond the 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed.  Throughout the country, states are determining whether bridges will be inspected, whether child care programs will be inspected, potential impacts that exceed the closure of national parks and museums. For tourists, Congress’ inaction is an inconvenience, for families whose budgets and well-being are directly affected, it’s much more personal.

It’s no secret that Congress is polarized and unable to agree to budget priorities.  Highlights from the last few years demonstrate a disturbing trend.

  • In the face of a debt ceiling crisis back in 2011, Congress agreed to a budget deal setting up a committee to recommend ways to reduce the deficit.  The penalty was a series of across the board cuts to be imposed (referred to as sequesters) in the event that Congress was unable to reduce the deficit.
  • As the first sequester neared in January 2013, a Congress unable to garner consensus on an alternative to the impending sequester, kicked the can to March. In March, when Congress was unable to reach a deal, the sequester was imposed on spending for the remainder of the fiscal year.

While it’s true that the government shut down for several weeks back in 1995 and 1996, it wasn’t a complete shut down (some appropriations bills had passed) and the fiscal impasse wasn’t exacerbated by an impending fiscal nightmare: the expiration of the nation’s debt ceiling (or borrowing authority) on or around October 16. (The government actually breached its $16.7 trillion debt ceiling in May but has been using emergency measures to keep operating since that time). The day of reckoning when the government’s borrowing authority will need to be increased is around the corner with experts predicting mid to late October as doomsday.

How did we get here?  Not overnight.  Last spring there was a charge for both the Senate and the House to pass a budget. They both passed budget resolutions (i.e, a measure analogous to a fiscal blueprint for committees to follow), but the budgets they passed were polar opposites.  It was clear that if appropriation bills were passed by each chamber complying with the budget parameters set forth in each chamber’s budget blueprint, it would be difficult to negotiate the differences. Numerous times since last April, the Senate tried to name conferees on the budget resolution to work out the differences but were blocked each time by the House majority.

Taegan Goddard's Wonk Wire Budget Table

Taegan Goddard’s Wonk Wire Budget Table

If the issue at hand was about budget priorities alone, it would be a challenge to reach an agreement. But, over the past few years, spending has been cut.  Federal budget data is crystal clear on that point and the most recent budget continuing resolution (CR) further bares that out. (See Figure 1).

However, the issue this go-round is ideological – it’s about support for and opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”  What’s the issue?  After much debate, the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148) became law on March 23, 2010. In June of 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Open enrollment in the health care marketplace has begun.

Members of Congress can like or dislike the Affordable Care Act, but the fact is that it is the law and has passed Constitutional muster.  A small minority in Congress want another bite at the apple. That bite has led to the shutdown of the federal government. The will of the minority has temporarily trumped the majority. Is that what the Founding Fathers had in mind as they drafted the Constitution? That the will of the minority could bring the government to a standstill and wreak havoc on the economy? Who actually is trumped? The American people.

Today, the President convened the House and Senate leadership to discuss the way forward on the budget impasse.  It was a private meeting with no staff and little has been reported in the press.  So, where does that leave things?

  • For programs assisting low income families with children, states are reviewing any unobligated balances of prior year money to see if and how long they might forward-fund the federal government during the shutdown as federal funds to states have stopped.
  • For tourists to our nation’s national parks and museums, the doors are closed.
  • For federal employees, paychecks have stopped.
  • For most Americans who depend on public services of some type, it’s a roll of the dice as to whether services are available, delayed, or stopped.

Historians will write about how our framework for democracy has been held hostage to the ideology of a minority whose will was surpassed by a law and a Supreme Court ruling. What’s the lesson learned? Register to vote. Show up to vote.  Vote for those who want good policy to promote our people and economy.  Vote against ideological extremists who are willing to shut down the government when they disagree with majority rule.  The final trump card is held by voters.  #EnoughAlready

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