© Josh Sager – October 2013
On October 1st, 2013, the Republican Party advanced its kamikaze mission to defund the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) when they shut down the federal government. By refusing to fund the federal government’s activities unless ObamaCare was defunded, these Republicans have forced the first shutdown since the Gingrich Congress in the 90s.
In a shutdown, the federal government ceases all “non-essential” activities and sends over 800,000 federal employees home without pay—these “non-essential” programs include everything from OSHA inspections and EPA enforcement, to NASA research and national parks. In addition to the programs which simply stop, many federal employees deemed “essential,” including soldiers and air-traffic controllers, are forced to work without pay for the duration of the shutdown (under the possibility that they will get back pay upon a resolution to the crisis).
At this point, there is no indication as to how long the 2013 government shutdown will last, or what effect it will have on the upcoming showdown over the debt ceiling. Regardless of how long it lasts, it will have a profound effect on many Americans’ lives and will likely have a detrimental effect on our economy.
What Caused the Shutdown?
The 2013 shutdown was precipitated by the GOP’s obsession with eliminating Obama’s signature policy achievement and made possible through a combination of partisan gerrymandering and weak GOP leadership.
Ever since its passage, the GOP has seen ObamaCare as a symbol of Obama’s presidency and has made every effort to kill it—these efforts include over 40 votes to repeal the law in the House and several hostage crises. In addition to being a policy symbol, the GOP has used the repeal of ObamaCare as a fundraising tool (promising continuing repeal attempts if only their voters will send them some more money).
The 2013 shutdown is only the most recent and most extreme event in a series of attempts to kill ObamaCare. Approximately 80 extremists in the Republican Party (inasmuch as there are moderates) have intimidated Boehner into not letting a clean continuing resolution come to a vote, despite the fact that such a bill has enough votes to pass (the Democrats, joined by defecting sane Republicans).
Because no budget has been passed since 2009, the government has continued running through a series of short-term “continuing resolutions” (CRs) which authorize enough funding to keep the federal lights on. This reliance upon short-term resolutions to keep the government funded has allowed GOP extremists numerous opportunities to shut-down the government unless their demands are met.
In the past, the Democrats gave in to GOP demands during these conflicts, but, this time, the GOP brought us over the brink by asking for something that even the normally-weak Democrats wouldn’t accept: the defunding of the signature legislation of the sitting Democratic president.
Many members of the GOP are emboldened to hold the country hostage because neither their leadership nor their base are inclined to rein them in. Representative Boehner—their supposed leader—is at risk of losing his Speakership to somebody more right wing if he stops this hostage crisis, thus he is unwilling to stick his neck out. In addition to this, many GOP House members represent securely Republican districts, thus are not afraid of any challenge except during a primary.
Put simply, the electoral incentives for the right wing are for them to shut down the government, while their leadership has a political disincentive to reining them in.
The recent actions of the Republicans represent extreme examples of nullification and the attempts by a minority to grab far more power than they legally are given.
Nullification: The elimination or obstruction of a law by a group which has no legal authority to do so. This can include portions of the federal government refusing to enforce its own law, states trying to overrule federal laws, or even jury members disregarding the law in order to supply a not-guilty verdict (jury nullification).
Regardless of anybody’s opinions on the ACA, it was passed by majorities of both chambers of the legislature, signed into law by a duly elected president, and upheld by the Supreme Court—this makes it the law of the land.
The House GOP has made over 40 attempts to repeal ObamaCare within the structures of the law and has failed every time, making them desperate enough to start using extraordinary measures.
Just as state legislators during the civil rights era would refuse to implement civil rights laws, these federal legislators are refusing to fund the ACA (thus making it impossible to implement the law fully).
If the GOP wishes to repeal the ACA, then they have every right to do so—that is, if they can get a repeal bill through the legislature and survive a potential presidential veto. Until they can achieve this full repeal, any attempts to block the implementation or funding for the law are simply attempts to unconstitutionally nullify the standing law of the land.
Unlike previous attempts to nullify laws—which usually involved states refusing to implement federal laws—the current shutdown utilizes hostage-taking tactics. This new twist to an old tactic has the unfortunate side effect of turning the obstruction a single law from being implemented into a widespread disruption of governmental functions.
By threatening to shut down the government or even precipitate a global economic crisis by refusing to increase the debt ceiling, the GOP is able to compel concessions from everybody who cares about the country and the economy. Rather than argue policy on merits and have direct debates about legislation, these extremists use a vital bill as collateral to push their agenda against the will of the vast majority.
Personally, I think that this situation was best described by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in the following quote:
“In a democracy, hostage tactics are the last resort for those who can’t otherwise win their fights through elections, can’t win their fights in Congress, can’t win their fights for the Presidency, and can’t win their fights in Courts; for this right-wing minority, hostage-taking is all they have left – a last gasp of those who cannot cope with the realities of our democracy.”
The GOP is apparently willing to harm a lot of people and risk chaos by preventing the federal government from doing all of the things which society relies upon and takes for granted (ex. inspecting food) during their attempt to nullify ObamaCare. We, the American people, must remember this the next time that we vote and ensure that none of the extremists involved in this debacle ever get a position of power in Washington ever again.