The clock kept ticking right up to midnight and on into the new fiscal year in America as the US government officially ran out of money - sort of. Of course details are important, and we'll get to them in while. But the whole thing is not some light farce, but rather really serious governmental business.
Seventeen years ago, during the last big government shutdown, the writer was working in Washington. When the decisions were made about who were essential versus non-essential employees, I was paired up with another diplomat to cover essential business. Accordingly, in the first week I became an essential employee for three days a week, and non-essential for the other four. In the second week, I was slightly more essential, with four days to my credit and three days not.
On my "down" days, I stayed at home, carrying out mundane tasks like calling the bank that held our mortgage bond to tell the loan officer that I wasn't sure if federal employees would be paid that week (and that if we weren't paid, they weren't going to be paid that month either). To keep myself amused, I had forwarded the email traffic from my previous "essential worker" day to my home email address and then read through them at leisure to see if any of them were important enough to call to the attention of my essential worker partner for the day.
One particular message caught my eye - an international studies advisor at a South Korean university (an American instructor working there, it turned out) had seen the news and when he read American embassies would be closed as a result of the shutdown and would no longer be issuing student visas, he made a major leap of misunderstanding and decided this meant American embassies around the world were going to be closed. Period.
Not surprisingly, that produced panic among the students he was dealing with, and in a way we have now become much more aware of since that more innocent time, his cyber-fears went viral, reaching Pakistan and other countries in South Asia as well. Even though I was non-essential until the next morning, I managed to reach him via email and insisted that he desist immediately - and send out corrections to everyone he had already sent a note to - before he caused student riots around the world because foreign students would no longer be able to enter the US with student visas to take up their places at American universities for the upcoming spring semester.
That was the shutdown that eventually allowed Americans decide that the fault for this bizarre governmental failure lay mostly with the Republicans in Congress under the leadership of their Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. And that, in turn, allowed President Bill Clinton to blunt the challenge of his impeachment and then regain a significant share of the popularity he had held on assuming the presidency back in 1992. And Democrats eventually won back the House of Representatives as well.
This time around, the Republicans and Democrats have tangled yet again over the annual budget legislation - with the failure to pass even a continuing resolution that would be mutually agreeable to the two houses of Congress - now leading to the current shutdown. Republicans in control in the House of Representatives - particularly egged on by the hard-edged Tea Party faction of their party - have passed several versions of a continuing resolution (a temporary stopgap budget funding measure) that would have "defunded" the administration of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) - Obamacare. In its most recent version, their measure would have postponed implementation of the ACA for a year - presumably so that Republicans could fight this battle one more time, one year later. All of this, of course, was in spite of the fact the ACA had become law several years ago and that it was eventually upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court, despite Republican protests.
This latest version of the measure with its one-year delaying provision was then sent to the Senate. The Democrats continue to be a majority in that chamber. And so, after Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz had given his "faux-libuster" of a twenty-one hour monster speech - the Senate once again voted down the House of Representatives' version of the continuing resolution, with Democratic leaders in the Senate saying they would only vote on a "clean" continuing resolution that did not include defunding or delays of the ACA.
Before the shutdown had occurred, there still seemed to be some grounds for optimism. The president had told the National Public Radio network, "[W]hen it comes to Congress paying its bills, is that we cannot be a country that is lurching every two months or three months from crisis to crisis to crisis. Essentially the bill that they've presented is they want to extract concessions for something they're supposed to do anyway, and then two months from now we'll be going through the exact same thing. This is a two-month extension of funding. This isn't a broad-based solution to our fiscal problems."
And Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner had said late on 30 September, "The House has made its position known very clearly: We believe that we should fund the government and we think there ought to be basic fairness for all Americans under Obamacare. The Senate has continued to reject our offers. But under the Constitution there's a way to resolve this process and that is to go to conference and talk through your differences. And I would hope that the Senate would accept our offer to go to conference and discuss this so we can resolve this for the American people."
But as the minutes ticked past until midnight 30 September/1 October came and went, temperatures began to rise - with some Democratic Party leaders referring to their counterparts as "Banana Republic-ans" or that "they've lost their minds" over in their corner of the Capitol. The Republicans were just about as calm and collected about their opponents, of course. Even without a budget - or money to operate the government - the level of acrimony seems to be rising by the hour, making an eventual settlement - something that will inevitably happen, somehow - that much more complicated and touchy to achieve.
By mid-afternoon on 1 October, President Barack Obama had delivered his own remarks on the shutdown, standing in the White House Rose Garden, surrounded by a group of new beneficiaries of some of the provisions of Obamacare. One of the great ironies of the situation, of course, is that 1 October is the day when a key element of Obamacare - state insurance exchanges goes live to allow currently uninsured - and up until now uninsurable - Americans - around 15% of the country's population - to obtain health care insurance. (Obama noted that the website for these exchanges had already recorded over a million hits within the first few hours of the site going live.)
Obama is clearly in a feisty, fighting mode. In his afternoon speech, Obama told the country, "As long as I am president, I will not give in to reckless demands by some in the Republican Party to deny affordable health insurance to millions of hard-working Americans." Gesturing to the people arrayed behind him, he added, "I want Republicans in Congress to know - these are the Americans you'd hurt if you were allowed to dismantle this law."
Commenting on his speech, the New York Times reported, "Making maximum use of the presidential megaphone, Mr Obama continued to blame Republicans for the loss of government services as both early polls and anecdotal evidence from around the nation suggested that many Americans were doing the same. More precisely, he - echoed by Democrats in Congress - has taken to describing the impasse as one forced by scores of militantly conservative lawmakers, who have cowed Republican leaders to take their uncompromising stand."
Then throwing down a rhetorical gauntlet and thus effectively laying the blame for the whole mess on Tea Party stalwarts among Republican Congressmen and women who have prevented Republicans from compromising on the ACA, Obama told his national television audience (and those Republican legislators who almost certainly were watching his performance), "At midnight last night for the first time in 17 years the Republicans in Congress chose to shut down the federal government. Let me be more specific: One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government shut down major parts of the government, all because they did not like one law. They've shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans. In other words, they demanded ransom just for doing their jobs."
"Ransom", of course, is now being translated into a rolling shutdown of many government functions, with perhaps 800,000 federal civil servants being sent home on furlough in the Washington area and in other cities throughout the country. As a result, government services are being shuttered across the nation. These range from efforts such as the processing of approvals for new disability pensions, procurement of vast amounts of routinely ordered supplies and services for government programs and facilities, access to virtually all of the country's national parks, memorials and monuments, federal museums (like the Smithsonian), historic sites - and even the cessation of the widely watched panda-cam, set up so that people around the world can watch the development of new panda cubs at the National Zoo via the Internet.
Naturally many government activities will continue - the air traffic controllers will still do their vital work, the military will still be in business, the border patrol will still do its thing, and so forth. But as the shutdown goes forward, the president is clearly counting on the feeling that, more and more, citizens will begin to place the blame squarely at the feet of the Republicans - both to its vacillating leadership and to the Tea Party tail that is clearly wagging the rest of the party's dog - thereby forcing the Republicans to give way over the one year delay plan or defunding. In that sense, this fight could end up being a reprise of Newt Gingrich's overreach some seventeen years ago.
And there is already some new survey and polling evidence that such a strategy may pan out. A Quinnipiac Poll out 1 October reported, "American voters oppose, 72-22 percent, Congress shutting down the federal government to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare ... Voters also oppose, 64-27 percent, blocking an increase in the nation's debt ceiling as a way to stop Obamacare ... American voters are divided on Obamacare, with 45 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed [although some of that opposition may also include people who originally favoured a single payer system as with Canada's national health system], but they are opposed, 58-34 percent, to Congress cutting off funding for the health care law to stop its implementation."
The Quinnipiac data also showed, "Republicans support the federal government shutdown by a narrow 49-44 percent margin, but opposition is 90-6 percent among Democrats and 74-19 percent among independent voters. President Barack Obama gets a negative 45-49 percent overall job approval rating, [statistically unchanged from] 46-48 percent score August 2. American voters disapprove, 74-17 percent, of the job Republicans in Congress are doing, their lowest score ever, and disapprove, 60-32 percent, of the job Democrats are doing." While it is not all one way, of course, these results point to a relatively inauspicious landscape for Republicans, the longer the fight over a continuing resolution to end the shutdown takes.
But right behind the fight over the government shutdown, of course, is the impending fight over the federal debt ceiling. In simple terms, the federal government issues debt instruments - treasury bonds - to cover its expenditures over tax revenues. Traditionally, the yearly increase of the debt ceiling - think of it as something like an increase of the credit limit on one's Visa or Mastercard - has been a nearly automatic process because it simply means government will honour its already issued debt obligations. But in recent years, Republicans have begun to seize on this issue as well to rein in what they see as rampaging, out-of-control government spending beast. As a result, the debt ceiling has become a kind of litmus test for allegiance to the idea of dramatically shrinking government, rather than allowing it to continue to grow.
Current calculations by the Treasury Department are that the government's ability to pay its debt obligations will be exceeded by these obligations on or about 17 October, and that after that date, the government would technically be in default. Such a result would provoke enormous turbulence in national and global financial and equity markets - with thoroughly unpredictable outcomes. Some Tea Party legislators say with a kind of confused glee that a default would be a good thing, if it provoked the kind of crisis that forced the shrinkage of the government - but for most politicians and officials, such an outcome is the real deal of the awful "things that go bump in the night". And so, even if the continuing resolution - with or without ACA defunding or a year's delay in implementation - is finally passed, Republicans and Democrats, the Congress and the President, are going to find themselves right back in it over this second financial challenge.
This column appeared in Daily Maverick.