At midnight on Tuesday, the federal government entered the beginning stages of a shutdown, as Congress failed to pass a budget resolution. Republicans and Democrats have been in a standoff over the provisions of the appropriations bill, with Republicans in the House of Representatives consistently passing bills that defund the Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as “Obamacare”), and Senate Democrats have consistently shot down spending bills with such provisions.
The previous year’s budget expired at midnight last Tuesday, meaning that approximately 800,000 federal government workers face uncertainty over when they will return to their jobs. Without an operational budget, only “essential” federal government employees are permitted to work. Essential federal employees, sometimes called “expected” federal employees, include federal workers who work in national security and workers in law enforcement and public safety. Members of Congress will continue working, as their positions are permanently written into law. Additionally, Social Security and Medicare compensation will continue, as those programs are a part of permanent law.
All non-essential federal agents worked on Tuesday only to prepare for a shutdown. A few of the most notable government functions slated for shutdown include the national parks and monuments, certain components of the Department of Justice, financial regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While local and state authorities are uncertain as to the potential ramifications of the shutdown in Berkshire County, according to a report by The Berkshire Eagle, the Berkshires will likely be minimally affected (“Berkshires to feel minimal impact from looming government shutdown,” Sept. 28). All essential law enforcement functions will continue, and the Silvio O. Conte Federal Building in Pittsfield, Mass., will remain open. However, new applicants for Social Security and Medicare will not have their applications processed during the shutdown. The payment of Social Security and Medicare benefits, while they will continue, will likely be delayed, and programs like HeadStart – a daycare service – could potentially be shutdown, depending on how the federal government proceeds over the course of the next few days.
This is the first federal government shutdown since the Clinton Era, when the federal government shut down for a total of 28 days between Nov. 14 to 19, 1995 and Dec. 16, 1995 to Jan. 6, 1996. Both of these shutdowns occurred with a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled House, indicating the extent to which partisan politics influenced the shutdown. The current debate in Congress reflects different ideological values in the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. All spending bills must originate with the House, but they must also be passed by the Senate and signed by the president to become law.
The House is seeking to effectively repeal the Affordable Care Act by removing all funding for the act in the House spending bill. The House has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act 42 times since President Obama signed it into law on March 23, 2010. The Affordable Care Act was also contested in the Supreme Court via National Federation of Independent Business et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the law in June of 2012. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), have thus far refused to accept any spending bills that attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act.
“The Tea Party Republicans positively loathe the Affordable Care Act and have sought, in vain, to repeal, dismantle, or otherwise obstruct it in any way possible,” Justin Crowe ’03, assistant professor of political science, said. “Assuming Democrats don’t change their position – and they’ve been united to a degree that is rare for them on this issue – the question is really whether Tea Party Republicans are made to come around or simply worked around.”
Efforts to pass a spending bill intensified on Monday evening, but no compromise was reached. House Republicans attempted to entice Senate Democrats into a bipartisan conference, but Reid rejected the offer outright, claiming that the Democrats did not want to negotiate “with a gun to our head.”
“The rancor generally has been building almost from the moment Obama assumed office – and certainly from the moment he signed the Affordable Care Act into law,” Crowe said. “The ‘governance at gunpoint’ model – becoming more the rule than the exception – is a somewhat more recent product, catalyzed by the Tea Party surge in the 2010 midterms.”
The partisan dissention over the appropriations bill does not bode well for debt ceiling negotiations, which will come to a head in Congress over the next couple of weeks. In order to pay for services that the federal government has already received, Congress must vote to raise the debt ceiling, otherwise the government will default on its loans, which could impact its ability to procure foreign loans and its prestige abroad. This could be particularly damaging on the heels of Standard & Poor’s (S&P) decision to downgrade the U.S. government from an AAA (outstanding) credit rating to an AA+ (excellent) credit rating in 2011. As of June of 2013, S&P has maintained the AA+ credit rating for the U.S. government, though the S&P rating included a positive outlook for U.S. government credit.
“Without knowing how or when this drama will end, it’s impossible to know [how the government shutdown will affect debt ceiling negotiations],” Crowe said. “It’s almost universally agreed that not raising the debt ceiling would be far more damaging than the shutdown, so, in theory, there should be greater incentive to compromise, but it’s not clear that the threat of default scares House Republicans enough to force them to accept anything less than conservative triumph.”
While the full ramifications of the shutdown remain to be seen, Congress is slated for contentious debate in the foreseeable future. At press time, no compromise had been reached, and the federal government remained shut down.