Thursday, 7 April 2011

US government on verge of shutdown

The Tea Party Republicans weren't kidding around when they said they were coming to Washington to make war on government. Because agreement on a new budget has been blocked by the new Tea Party caucus, the government will shut down midnight Friday night unless Republicans who control the House of Representatives and the Democrats who control the Senate can come to an agreement. Given that Tea Party protesters are now gathering around Washington chanting "Shut it down!", House Republican leader John Boehner is unlikely to find any way to compromise and save the government without infuriating the new Tea Party caucus.

The consequences of a shutdown would be dire. Unlike when a country has 'no government' - as has been the case in Belgium for about a year - a government shutdown literally means a shutdown of government services. 800,000 federal employees would be put out of work. "Essential workers" like soldiers and police officers would continue to work but would not be paid. National parks and museums would close. Government mortgages and small business loans would be halted. Economists are saying that a shutdown could put America's very fragile economic recovery in danger. Millions of people who depend on government services, like veterans or the disabled, will suddenly be on their own. And don't even try getting a passport to leave or a visa to enter the US during the shut down. All of these things will grind to a halt.

The negotiations have been going on for months, with the two sides in disagreement over how much to cut. The newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives presented a budget with a colossal $61 billion in cuts to government programs. This is nearly double what they had originally called for, after being pressured from the Republican representatives identifying with the Tea Party. After negotiations the Democrats agreed to the original proposed $33 billion in cuts, but they refused to back the non-economically-motivated cuts the Republicans had put in their budget - including de-funding planned parenthood (which provides birth control and abortions), national public radio and the environmental protection agency.

The Tea Party representatives have refused to back down on their full demands for cuts to these particular programmes, which have been targets of the right for decades. They are insisting that any compromise that would shelve the cuts to the EPA and Planned Parenthood would be a failure. They're also insisting on no figure below $61 billion. House Leader John Boehner will have to answer to them if he compromises even a bit. The Tea Party consensus has been this - it would be better to have a government shutdown than to give even an inch on the budget battle. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising coming from a group whose main motivating ideology is their distrust of government. If government is the problem, a shutdown of government can't be a bad thing right?

But the Tea Party is playing a dangerous game here. The last government shutdown, which occurred in 1995 after Bill Clinton and Republican House Leader Newt Gingrich couldn't come to an agreement on the budget, was a disaster for Republicans. Many Americans blamed Gingrich's perceived grandstanding and intransigence as being the cause of the shutdown, and it effectively sent Gingrich out into the political wilderness for a decade. Americans may have been attracted to the Tea Party's anti-government message during last year's campaign, but when they actually see what things look like when there's no government, they may change their tune. That, combined with the backlash still going on in the midwest to counter Republican state-level efforts to cripple unions, could cost Republicans politically come 2012.

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