Day 4 of the Federal Shutdown — and the sky has not fallen, the earth has not stopped spinning. In fact, it is a beautiful sunny day here in Washington DC, traffic is light, and except for the odd crazy person trying to crash through the White House traffic barriers, all seems terribly normal, even pleasant…
This is awful news. Why? Because if shutting the government down produces nothing bad then the Republican hardliners will press even further, perhaps even into freezing the US debt limit. That would be truly awful, everyone says. Yes, but didn’t the same people say a government shutdown would be awful, and look — almost no problems! So maybe, think the Republicans, they can go all the way and hold out on the ultimate lever of government power, its ability to borrow money.
What is really going on here? It is simple. Two years ago, when the House, Senate, and President were Democratic, they passed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The law used the government’s taxing power and regulatory power to create incentives for ALL Americans to have health care insurance. Republicans hate that law. Why? Hard to say. Some because they don’t like the government to do anything (so shutting down the government is a good thing!) Some because they don’t like the government telling people what to do (unless it is what THEY want, namely buy more aircraft and missiles and work for less money, lowering the minimum wage). Some because they fear it will be a great victory for President Obama if it goes into effect and works as planned. Whatever the reason, a majority of Republicans — about 30% of the membership of House of Representatives — wants to kill Obamacare if its the last thing that they, or anyone, will do. So they are willing to shut down the government until they get their way, that being some delay or gutting of the key provisions of the Obamacare law.
Now, there is NOTHING in the US Constitution that envisages a minority of the members of one house of Congress shutting the government down and holding it hostage over one law that they intensely dislike. Indeed, the US Constitution does not even mention parties, so it would make no sense to the founders to say the House cannot vote on a law unless it has the support of the majority of the largest party. But that is what is happening. In fact, a bill to fund and open the government would easily pass the House if it were brought to a vote, as all Democrats and many Republicans would vote for it.. But the majority of the Republicans in the House control the House leadership, and they will not let that leadership bring a clean government funding bill to the House for a vote.
Now to me, the biggest laugh comes from hearing the Republicans complain about the President being unwilling to negotiate, while they are willing to compromise. How does that work? Obamacare is the President’s baby, and it is a wholly legitimate baby, brought into the world by both Houses of Congress and blessed by the Supreme Court. Here is the Republican’s idea of compromise: “President Obama, give us your baby, let us kill it, and you can have the government back open.” “Is that too much? OK, we will only slice the legs off your baby — won’t you accept that?” “No, still too much? Okay… How about we just cut off both hands?” “No – one hand?” “How about bamboo shoots under the fingernails until it screams and goes mad?” “Now why won’t you make a deal — don’t you see how far we have come and how far we are willing to compromise?”
So the President has said he will make no deal that trades the death, mutilation or dysfunction of Obamacare for the ability of the US government to operate. Rightfully so — you do not negotiate on the Constitution. And the Constitution is very clear on how you change a law you do not like: you get support of a majority of both Houses of Congress and the President to make the change, or enough votes in both Houses to override a Presidential veto. That is how the US Constitution operates — and having a determined minority try to get around those Constitutional procedures by holding the entire government’s funding hostage until the majorities give in on one law is completely un-Constitutional.
Yet the Republicans who are doing this do not see it that way – at all. Completely the reverse. In their view Obamacare is an act of tyranny imposed by a possibly foreign-born, closet-Muslim President who fooled people to get into office and now is trying to destroy American freedom. The Republicans doing this see themselves as the TRUE patriots, the heroes, the real defenders of American Freedom, and they will not compromise.
So we could be stuck here for a long time. If this was a disagreement over spending, a matter of dollars and cents, they could split the difference. If this was a problem over procedures, or a debate on which counting the votes would determine the outcome, we could do that. But it is none of these. It is a pure ideological confrontation, where the President feels that he has the Constitution on his side and is defending the most important law of his lifetime, and the most important thing he can do for the American people, while the Republicans believe the President is trying to destroy their country and that they must do anything, even risk the very country they are trying to save, to stop him.
These positions do not have any room for compromise, doubt, or bargaining. So we could be here a very long time indeed.
Some deep breaths Professor. I can almost feel the fumes of your anger in your latest op-ed. I do sympathize with you though sir, nothing pisses me off more than stupid people. There’s a saying in Farsi that my grandfather repeated to me many times in my childhood: “It’s better to have a smart enemy than a stupid friend.” To test out my grandfather’s hypothesis I have been debating on Facebook with bunch of hardcore conservatives that wholeheartedly defend and encourage the continued senseless Republican hardline. Below are three things that I have learned from this group:
1. Traditionally underrepresented white uneducated population now have a viable forum to be heard. Some of the people that I have been talking that call Obama a Socialist Nazi (not making it up), are eerily similar to uneducated Islamist I met in late 1980s in Pakistan. Both groups seem like a large petroleum tank sparked by a small match. In this case the match has been thrown by a small group of opportunistic politicians like Senator Ted Cruz. For example, Senator Cruz’s Facebook post that President Obama personally preventing a military chaplain from administering prayers got 14,209 likes, 3,601 mostly positive comments and 7,357 shares in about five hours. Justin Bieber would be proud of those kind of publicity numbers on social media. It is difficult to point out to these people that a civilian military chaplain according to current law is considered non-essential employee, thus like other 800,000 federal employees furloughed, he is unable to attend work. This type of propaganda is easily communicated to fire up bunch of already frustrated people, starving for a reason to blame someone else for all shortcoming of their lives. In late 1970s right before the Communist took over Afghanistan, the weak Afghan prime minister seeking a way to distract the masses went to southern and eastern tribes who are the least educated at the time and took out the holy Quran asking them to take arms against Pakistan for the name of god and his holy prophet. No other reason provided, he just asked them to do it for god. This almost led to a war with Pakistan.
2. Power Point culture: There are millions of young and middle aged Americans who for almost all of their lives have operated digitally and have learned about life through short headlines or tweets. If you asked this group to paint a wall, they will google “paint wall” and copy and paste the definitions of paint and wall into a Power Point and feel they have accomplished their task. For good reasons a lot of these people are unemployed or very unhappy in their current jobs because they can’t get anything done. They are dangerous though because they are brain-washed by few political talking points and no matter what you tell them they’re too lazy to parse through any argument thus very rigid. These people have of time in their hand and have flooded to social media, making it very difficult for more moderate Republicans like Speaker Boehner to soften his tone.
3. People most affected by the past three years of budget gridlock only recently have become desperate enough to speak loudly. Federal employees who have lost pay through sequestration and now are not getting paid because of shutdown in general are better paid than most Americans. This group despite the budget gridlock have been much better off than many other groups in recent years like recent college graduates, manufacturing workers and so on, thus they have had little incentive to speak up.
Yes, it seems that media is dividing rather than uniting us; reinforcing opinions rather than sifting for facts