The US Shutdown: Can Someone Explain What Just Happened?

Capitol, DC

By Megan Thresh

Early on Tuesday last week, a friend turned to me, and in a rather offhand manner mentioned, “You do realise that the US government shut down this morning, don’t you?” I was astounded. Why was I not woken up to this news with alarm bells, sirens, and police cars screeching down Overton Road? Surely the closure of the American government, managing one of the most influential nations in the world, would result in chaos; stock markets collapsing, riots, world-wide anarchy? As it transpired, although bewildering the situation may be, the shut down of the US government was not half as melodramatic as one might have anticipated.

Intrigued as I was, I set out to understand the series of events that resulted in the shutdown. Essentially, the fallout between the Democratic Party, that supposedly sits further left on America’s political centre  (and of which Barack Obama is head) and the Republican Party (that holds to strict conservative values) is over the funding of “Obamacare”- the medical legislation that the Democratic Party have been attempting to implement. In order to understand why a major fallout between the governing parties of the USA can lead to the shutdown of the government itself, one must understand the structure of the US federal government.

The US Congress is comprised of two elected bodies – the Senate, in which members are elected every six years, with two senators from each state, and the House of Representatives, where appointments are made every two years in proportion with the population size of their state. If the President wants to pass legislation, he must run this first through the House of Representatives and then through the Senate. Here lies the issue: within the Senate, the Democrats have a larger percentage of representatives; in the House, the Republicans prevail. In 2009, Obama signed The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, (also known as the Obamacare legislation). It was passed after a bitter debate within Congress, the Republicans unanimously opposing the vote. The sole reason the Democrats were able to pass this legislation was due to its narrow majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate – since the act was approved, the Republicans, and more specifically, members of the Tea Party movement, have done all in their power to prevent Obamacare being carried out, even appealing to the Supreme Court in 2012 to prevent the act passing into the constitution.

Since 20th September, 2013, the debate over the public spending budget (which of course includes funding for the public healthcare service) has been shuttled between the Senate and the House of Representatives, who refuse to sign any document regarding the funding of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  I can hear you screaming, ‘why?’ Why do the Republicans so staunchly oppose Obamacare, opposing legislation that would provide healthcare for all Americans? In the words of the John Boehner, Head Speaker for the Republicans in the House, “Our message to the United States Senate is real simple: The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare.”

Obamacare, naturally, would demand higher taxes from the American people to fund health insurance for those who normally could not afford it. Part of the Obamacare legislation also requires all people who are not insured privately or by their employers, to get insurance. Outwardly, the Republican party have been all too eager to air the opinion that Obamacare legislation is unconstitutional, against the ideas of the Founding Fathers – to force upon the American population the bills of those undeserving few. It also contradicts the traditional conservative American psyche; if you “can’t afford it, you can’t have it.”

Widely suspected, however, is the underlying fear of extremists within the Republican Party that Obamacare might actually work. The CBO predict that under the legislation, by 2016, 25 million people would have healthcare insurance  who could not have afforded it otherwise – that reflects very well on the Democrat party. Obama stated in a speech on 3rd October,  “The only thing that is preventing (the end of the shutdown), today, in the next five minutes, is that Speaker John Boehner won’t even let the bill get a yes or no vote because he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his own party. That’s all.”

So, while the American Congress bickers and the Tea Party politicians prevent the bill passing to a Floor vote (where ultimately, the legislation would be passed), the national debt is racking up, and thousands of civil servants remain unemployed and unpaid.

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Image: photo by Rollinho on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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