US shutdown is symptom of dysfunctional government

White House and House Republicans poles apart as Congress locked in stalemate

A baby sleeps in front of a sign indicating the closure of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park on the first day of a government shutdown in Washington yesterday.

A baby sleeps in front of a sign indicating the closure of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park on the first day of a government shutdown in Washington yesterday.


The first US government shutdown in 17 years had been coming for some time, since 2010 in fact when the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives to Republicans.

The suspension of non-vital government services, forcing 783,000 workers to stay at home on unpaid leave, is a symptom of the dysfunctional nature of American politics, an example of how ungovernable the US has become amid the bitter divisions between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Budgetary rows have almost knocked the lights out in the past when Senate Democrats and House Republicans bickered over fiscal changes in 2011 and during the fiscal cliff talks over the new year.

Each time an 11th-hour deal was brokered. Not now. Late on Monday night, a third Republican proposal in two weeks to continue to fund the government for a matter of weeks was rejected by the Democrat-led Senate, which supported the White House and refused to be held to ransom.

Obamacare stripped
Each time the Republican-led house passed a short-term budgetary measure to keep government open, known as “a continuing resolution”, it made the plan conditional on the Affordable Care Act being stripped of funding. Each time the Democrat-led Senate rejected that condition. Stalemate ensued.

Democratic president Barack Obama vowed to proceed with his “Obamacare” law that extends health insurance to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and started rolling it out yesterday despite the shutdown.

There was no way he was going to unwind the biggest legislative achievement of his presidency, passed by Congress in 2010 and endorsed by the Supreme Court in 2012, a day before its rollout.

The staring contest between House Republican and Senate Democrats ended on Monday without either side blinking. The midnight deadline to agree a short-term budget to keep the government funded past a September 30th fiscal year-end passed and the government started shutting down.

House Republicans have tried to kick-start direct talks with Senate Democrats to find a compromise, but the Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid has refused to negotiate “with a gun to our head”. He said he would only negotiate if House Republicans first pass a short-term budget, reopening government.

US politics has become meaner and uglier over the past six months as far-right House Republicans, fearful of losing their seats to even more radical contenders in upcoming primary elections, have dug in. They pushed the Republican leadership to oppose Obamacare and government spending in tandem, a platform on which many were elected since the healthcare law was passed.

In March, speaker John Boehner, the most senior-ranking Republican in the House, was opposed to any attempt to link a defunding of Obamacare to a deal on a short-term budget, fearing the damage from an inevitable government shutdown. He’s right to be concerned. Polls show more of the public would hold the Republicans not Obama responsible for a shutdown.

The impact of the last government shutdown during Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1996 will be fresh in Boehner’s memory. The president’s battle with Newt Gingrich to balance a budget left the House Republican leader deeply unpopular, resulting in Clinton’s re-election later that year.

Blame game
A government shutdown may not have been Boehner’s goal but it is the consequence of the aggressive Republican all-or-nothing tactic on budget talks aimed at unravelling Obamacare and the Democrats’ unwillingness to negotiate a law on the US statute books. In the aftermath of the shutdown yesterday, the blame game started as the warring sides sought to pin responsibility on each other. Obama labelled it the “Republican shutdown”.

If Democrats and Republicans cannot agree a deal by October 17th – when the government runs out of money and Congress must vote to raise the borrowing limit to avoid an unprecedented debt default – this political stalemate will become a far more serious economic crisis for the United States.