Time to end the dangerous dance in Washington
Many in Washington cannot believe Congress will be crazy enough to drive theeconomy over a cliff
Lawmakers in Washington after voting to guarantee that federal workers will receive back pay once the government reopens after its shutdown. Public opinion is likely to turn further against Republicans as the full impact of the interruption to many federal services is felt. Photograph: Drew Angerer/The New York Times
Last weekend was unseasonably warm in Washington, with temperatures above 30 degrees, but sweaty tourists on the National Mall seeking a respite from the heat found museums and monuments closed as the shutdown of the US federal government meant that all staff had been sent home without pay.
Callers to the White House were greeted by a recorded message explaining that “due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to take your call”.
Still, the atmosphere in the city was oddly festive, with restaurants around Dupont Circle offering “shutdown specials” and many reporting a resurgence in lunchtime drinking. Washington Sports Club, a gym on Connecticut Avenue, was offering free membership for October to federal workers who found themselves with time on their hands.
The 800,000 furloughed federal workers will be paid for the days they would have worked during the shutdown but not until they return to work, whenever Congress agrees to start funding the government again. For many at the lower end of the pay scale the shutdown is already starting to bite. Businesses that depend on the government for work have also begun to feel the pinch.
Yet there is no end in sight for this stand-off over the annual federal budget, which the Republican leadership in Congress, president Barack Obama and leading Democrats had all hoped to avoid.
Instead it looks set to merge with a looming battle over the statutory limit on how much the federal budget may borrow – which Congress must increase by October 17th if the US government is to avoid defaulting on its debts.
Everyone from the International Monetary Fund to the big banks on Wall Street warn that default could prove catastrophic, not just for the US but for the global economy. That may be why many in Washington seem so relaxed about the current bout of brinkmanship – they just cannot believe that even this polarised Congress will be crazy enough to drive the economy over a cliff.
Polls show that more Americans blame Republicans than the president for the shutdown, and public opinion is likely to turn further against the party as the full impact of the interruption in many federal services is felt. Republican house speaker John Boehner has made no secret of his personal opposition to his party’s refusal to approve a federal budget unless the president agreed to delay implementing a key element of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform that is Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Boehner could probably muster a big enough minority of Republicans to pass a budget in co-operation with Democrats and the president has this week been taunting the speaker to put the budget to a vote.