When I woke up this morning, I lazily checked isthegovernmentstillshutdown.com. Written on an otherwise blank page was one word: “Yup.”
It’s quite possible that unless you planned to visit a national park or expected tweets from NASA’s @MarsCuriosity you haven’t really been affected—yet. While it’s reassuring to know that the sky doesn’t start falling during a government shutdown, it’s only a matter of time before it fills up with petrochemical smog. During the shutdown, the EPA has suspended monitoring of air pollution and pesticide use, the Labor Department no longer enforces occupational safety standards or minimum wage laws, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission will stop oversight of the derivatives market. Wall Street is going to have some fun with that one. While key parts of the government like the military, FDA food inspection, and entitlement checks will for the most part continue, it’s clear that a long-term government shutdown could result in a level of deregulation that would shake consumer confidence and significantly reduce growth.
Now, government shutdown is bad, OK? The important question is how and why it closed in the first place. One of Congress’ jobs is to fund the government and—because they tend to spend trillions more than they get in tax revenue—raise the debt limit. In the old days, Congress was responsible and passed annual budgets like they were supposed to, but that hasn’t happened since 1997, back when the first Harry Potter book was released. In recent years, the political monkeys in Washington have realized that separation of powers allows for massive leverage for the minority to prevent everyone else from doing anything. So, people who didn’t like budgets only agreed to vote for omnibus bills that were filled with pork-barrel spending for their constituents, and people who didn’t get enough pork in the omnibus bills only agreed to vote for “minibus” bills. So here we are, funding government a couple months at a time.
When the government operates under the constant threat of shutdown, departments that hope to operate with any semblance of efficiency have absolutely no idea what their funding will be throughout the fiscal year. This flickering on-off switch of millions of jobs creates massive volatility in the economy. At the end of last year just the possibility of shutdown caused billions of dollars in the stock market to disappear. This time around, the markets are remarkably calm, but if Capitol Hill goes a step further and doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, say “hello” to Recession 2.0.
Apparently, the House Republicans are prepared to risk it. Frustrated with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) through the House and Senate, the re-election of Obama on the platform of Obamacare, and the unsuccessful effort to challenge it on constitutional grounds, the House Republicans are especially irate at the Democrats’ attitude that somehow these successes give them the right to fully implement the law.
Initially, the more conservative House Republicans were quite pleased with themselves—Michele Bachmann (R-MN) commented that the shutdown was “exactly what we wanted, and we got it.” In comments that were later appropriately retracted, Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) told The Washington Examiner the essence of the current Republican sentiment: “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
While shutting down the government was considered a good idea by some, the American public is unconvinced. The polls are showing that although the majority of people don’t support Obamacare in its current form, the vast majority disapproves of using a government shutdown or a debt default as a bargaining chip.
So Republicans, what gives? It turns out that the same gerrymandering process that allowed Republicans to hold 234 of the 435 seats in the House with only 48.5 percent of the popular vote in the most recent election also allowed them to take many of their districts with overwhelming majorities. To put gerrymandering in perspective, the average House GOP seat was 6.59 percent more Republican than the national average in 1995. Today, the average GOP seat is 11.12 percent more GOP. As a result, House Republicans have nothing to fear from a Democrat challenger, but because they now find themselves in an even more conservative district they are at a greater risk of being primaried by a more extreme conservative. This redistricting has resulted in House Republicans having little fear of losing their seats. Consequently, the slim majority of one house of one branch of government, elected by a minority of the popular vote, has become politically invincible enough to shut down the whole government in what equates to a temper tantrum.
Still, while gerrymandering has left almost all House representatives politically invincible regardless of party affiliation, it’s not like the Democrats introduced legislation repealing the Second Amendment and banning importation of non-organic foodstuffs; the Republicans are the only ones who have gone mad with power. Despite the massive unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act, shutting down the government and risking a credit default on $16 trillion of debt simply isn’t worth it. If Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, using their gerrymandered house majority as leverage to get whatever they want isn’t going to cut it. Their only real option is doing it the old-fashioned way: by winning electoral majorities and passing a law of their own. Easier said than done, but waiting for Obama’s signature health care bill to turn out as bad as they’ve been prophesizing would be a good start, and if that happens, putting forth a workable alternative would be a better finish.
David Grossman is a first-year in the College.