Most people today refer to Congress as dysfunctional and give it low ratings on trust. The disruption in government operations last month showed just how far a minority of elected representatives would go to get their way.
Nothing has aroused more Republican vitriol than the Affordable Care Act (ACA) even after it was passed by Congress, signed into law by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court. The recent crisis came when the Republican Party’s tea party wing led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz demanded repeal of the ACA as the price for funding the government and raising the national debt limit. President Obama refused to buckle to the extortion.
But Cruz’s strident take-no-prisoners campaign to eliminate the ACA split the ranks of the GOP, leading to something akin to a full-blown civil war among party conservatives. Cruz and his followers trashed all those who challenged him, labeling them as traitors to the cause of conservatism.
House Republicans used another tactic to achieve their goal. House rules allow any member, regardless of party, to call up a Senate-passed bill for a vote. But on September 30, the eve of the government shutdown, Republicans, who outnumber Democrats two to one on the House Rules Committee, changed the rule so only House Majority Leader Eric Cantor could call up a Senate-passed clean funding bill. The move was another part of a failed strategy to extract concessions from Democrats in exchange for reopening the government.
Congress finally agreed to a temporary fix: reopen the government through January 15 and raise the nation’s borrowing limit effective February 7. The need for this bipartisan breakthrough came because of the economic costs in the wake of the 16-day government shutdown and near-default on government obligations. Such stoppages have occurred before, but not with a looming debt ceiling that threatened to drive the American economy back into recession, roil global financial markets, and damage America’s fiscal reputation.
Domestically, the shutdown resulted in at least 800,000 employees furloughed. And it cost an estimated $24 billion. The economic damage hurt consumer confidence, slowed small business and agriculture loans, and cut tourism revenue.
Sinking Republican poll numbers also played a role in ending the standoff. One poll showed the public blamed the GOP rather than Obama for the shutdown by a stunning 22-point margin.
This crisis raised profound constitutional questions. It appears that Republicans shirked their sworn duty to pay bills and borrow money by both shutting down the government and threatening to default on its bills. The Constitution, moreover, does not allow a majority of the House of Representatives to repeal the law of the land by defunding it without the approval of the Senate and the President.
The U.S. Congress’ enactment of legislation related to Social Security, health care, and civil rights has been accompanied by intense ideological and partisan conflicts. There is a huge difference, however, between spirited arguments over the role of government in general and shutting down services that millions of everyday Americans depend on.
A number of politicians have offered suggestions to avert another credit ceiling debacle. One procedural measure would extend the debt limit through all of 2014. Another involves reducing congressional pay for each day the government is shut down. A third would implement a budget default policy which provides automatic continuing appropriations until an agreement is reached.
We need a sharp course correction to address the most pressing problems our nation faces. These include employment, education, infrastructure, research, and energy. While unprecedented polarization offers little hope for congressional action on these matters, we may at least see some movement on immigration and farm issues.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.