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This ain't the first shutdown

This aint the first shutdown
It happens only in America. Politicians squabble, lawmakers bicker over crucial legislations, reach an impasse and gridlock the government. But they also padlock the Statue of Liberty, signifying sound and fury, but above all, dysfunction. And hysteria. Welcome to the jungle of American paranoia and their readiness to sacrifice the federal government and affiliated state functions, just to drive home an utterly unreasonable point.

But guess what? Shutdowns are actually pretty commonplace in the US and its chequered history is peppered with an admirable number of previous government lockups. It’s rare to see democracies rattling their legislative sabre teeth and sending bureaucrats home because, lo behold, the Congressmen couldn’t get their act together. So if Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act is the bone of all contention this time, well, Holy Mary, it has had its precedents and a good
number of them.

Technically, there have been several funding gaps when the  government couldn’t get the new budget approved or the treasury ran out of money, officially. However, because of loose legal bindings, all out government blackouts were rare, until 1976, when President Gerald Ford vetoed a funding bill for the US department of Labor and the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, citing over-expenditure. That was when the US federal government stayed locked up for 10 days from 30 September to reopening on 11 October, effecting the very first Capitol Crisis blown out of proportion. All that and more in a bit, but first a glimpse of what exactly is the current shutdown all about and how badly it fares when compared to his glorious antecedents.

Cornering Obamacare

On 1 October, 2013, the United States federal government witnessed a shutdown, resulting in furloughs (unpaid leaves due to temporary closure) of about 800,000 government employees, alongside provisional withdrawal of services that are not exempted by the Antideficiency Act, or the services which are deemed less than absolutely vital for the nation-state to continue. Except for the defence services, security and minimal food and healthcare, most of the state-run facilities such as national museums, libraries, parks, even transport, remain closed until the shutdown is lifted and the US government is credited more money to run the current fiscal.

What was the reason for this funding gap? Apparently, the Barack Obama-led US administration applied to raise the debt ceiling from the existing $16.7 trillion, so as to accommodate the landmark Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare in popular parlance, which is a watershed legislation aimed at extending the refuge of relatively subsidised medical and healthcare insurance facilities to over 67 per cent of the American population, including its poor and not-that-well-off. The House of Congress, controlled by the Republicans, has been dead against ACA, since it signifies for them a proto-socialist big-government approach towards the people and goes against the spirit of capitalism, America’s ideological bedrock.

The Congressmen latched on to their demand of rescinding the Obamacare (which was supposed to take effect from the first day of the 2014 fiscal, that is 1 October) in order to clear the budget for the next fiscal as well as to raise the debt-ceiling, thereby entering a game of wits with the Barack Obama administration. Eventually, the deadlock crossed the threshold and the US government officially shutdown until the ongoing crisis is resolved.

Despite the Democrats-led Senate offering a number of feasible continuing resolutions, the Grand Old Party (GOP) stuck to its guts and brought about the current funding impasse. However, Barack Obama can take heart from history. Since 1976, we have seen 18 shutdowns including the current one, with the longest being the previous one under Obama’s Democrat predecessor, Bill Clinton.

The longest night


This is bound to give some solace to Barack Obama, since political pundits often compare the current US president to the charismatic and exceedingly handsome Bill Clinton, who, too, had faced the brunt of a recalcitrant Republican ire. It was in December 1995 that the showdown occurred, with Clinton at the helm of affairs, and Republicans Newt Gingrich as the House of Congress Speaker and Bob Dole as the Senate Majority Leader. It might sound like a classic case of déjà vu, but the longest government shutdown in the history of United States of America so far had also occurred over funding of Medicare, education and environment. As usual, the Re- publicans wanted to curtail federal spending, which clashed vehemently against Bill Clinton’s more egalitarian ideas about accessible healthcare and education.

On 15 December 1995, the Clinton government entered a budget gap that resulted in federal lockup lasting three weeks, 21 days, only to reopen on 6 January 1996, after Clinton agreed to use the Congressional Budget Office projections for a seven-year balance plan. Interestingly, the 21-day shutdown had followed a five-day closure only a month earlier that was also a consequence of a funding imbroglio.

Jimmy had (veto) gun


Of all the presidents, Jimmy Carter has had the maximum brushes with Capitol Crises. In 1978, Carter, a renowned pacifist, vetoed important bills for public works appropriation and for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, deeming them extravagant.

It was an intriguing situation since despite the Democrats controlling the presidency and both Houses of congress, there was a severe lack of consensus regarding expenditures on public works and defence.

On 30 September, 1978, the US government shutdown officially and stayed closed until 18 October 1978, effecting an 18-day closure, the second longest in history. Nevertheless, the president and the Congress reached an agreement on the budget allocations, with both walking the extra mile to resolve the crisis.

Funnily enough, the 1978 shutdown wasn’t Carter’s first. In fact, just a year before, a 12-day shutdown had marred his reputation, lasting from 30 September to 13 October, 1977, with the same dramatis personae involving House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. This time the issue at hand was using government sponsored Medicaid to pay for abortions, in case the mother’s life was imperiled.

The Senate and the House locked horns, with the Senate, ever the more progressive, looking to allow it, while the House of Congress cited expenditure problems and coupled it with some legal hassles to allow for the funding. At last, the Congress had its way and Medicaid continued to be disassociated from abortions, still a controversial topic in much of Euro-America.

Even though it appears wildly fantastic, Carter, O’ Neill and Byrd had overseen yet another shutdown in 1979.  This tme they failed to obtain Congressional pay hike to sanction a salary increase by 5.5 per cent for senior bureaucrats. The Senate found it wasteful and opposed the motion. Moreover, the abortion debate continued, with Medicaid now used to fund foetal termination in cases of rape or incest.

New deals, old bottlenecks


Behind the tactics of holding the government to ransom that the Republicans are currently engaging in, lies the entrenched American hysteria and overreaction to crises, both internal and external. The apocalyptic response to Obamacare from the Republican brigade at present is also symptomatic of that politics of paranoia, with debates assuming a shrillness that hasn’t been seen for a while. Increasingly, with the changing demographics and significance of immigrants in the American political make up, the assault on the larger populace has assumed a fevered pitch.

Historians and commentators have equated the current impasse with one of the first such encounters with budgetary conundrums, that in the time of Frederick D Roosevelt’s implementation of New Deal and Social Security Act (SSA) in 1935/6 and the Republican backlash that opposed his endeavours virulently.

In fact, when the Congress discussed the Social Security bill n 1935, the rightwingers went berserk to compare FDR with a communist all set to put an end to liberty and freedom in America. The National Association of Manufacturers, a body similar to today’s big corporate lobbies, put it like this this: ‘Never in the history of the world has any measure so insidiously designed to prevent business recovery and to enslave workers.’

For others, Social Security meant a veritable threat that could ‘pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.’ Yet such is the schizophrenia within the splintered American social fabric, that in spite of the vicious campaign to malign the Social Security bill, the Act was passed by a major margin and FDR was reelected in 1936 riding its crest.

But the visceral hatred of FDR amongst the Republicans didn’t die down. Despite coming back to power, he had to face an uphill task to kickstart the payroll tax. However, in May 1937, the Supreme Court of America upheld the SSA, thereby dealing a crushing blow to the Republican attempt to stall/repeal the Act. However, the only saving grace was that despite being at loggerheads, a typical shutdown was averted, citing perilous global conditions and a looming threat of another world war.

What lies beneath

There are quirks of American history and then there are the bindings laid down by the framers of US Constitution. In all, budgetary control in hands of Congress has been a way of checking the overreach of the US president, a sort of a counterweight to not make any one institution or individual all-powerful. The balance of power keeps shifting, sometimes favouring one over the other, though not for long.

The 1800s were spent ironing out the rough edges of the US government apparatus, and now, after two centuries of democratic functioning, US is once again at a familiar crossroad.

At the end of the day, who has the piggy bank matters much, but who has the power to ink deals leaves lasting impacts. Drafting bills become as important as paying for them and America haltingly learns to improvise every time it is faced with a Congressional conundrum.
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