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Washington Dysfunction: Our Government at its Worst

Obama, Congress finally agree to end government shutdown, extend debt limit.

By Brian Wild, News Writer

Image by Joshua Gibson-Underwood.

Image by Joshua Gibson-Underwood.

At 6:00 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time on Sept. 30, our federal government ran out of money. It was midnight, Oct. 1 in our nation’s capital and Congress was haplessly scrambling to find a quick solution to our ensuing fiscal crisis. This was all sparked by federal lawmakers who were unable to reach an agreement in time that would temporarily fund the government, at least until a more long-term spending plan could be crafted. Such a plan was in fact reached about two weeks later, and a bill that funds the government and raises the debt ceiling (more on that below) for the rest of the year was signed into law just before midnight Eastern Standard Time on Oct. 17.  Nevertheless, as a result of this initial failure, the U.S. government was forced to halt all of its ‘nonessential’ services – delaying certain loans and benefits, closing national parks and museums, as well as furloughing many federal workers. Other services, such as national defense and Social Security payments, are expected to continue and reach people in need. This was the first government shutdown of its kind since the mid-90s, when President Bill Clinton similarly battled with Congressional Republicans over spending and debt. Yet, unlike Clinton, President Obama faces a much more complicated route to getting what he wants from Congress. After all, it’s not much of a coincidence that today’s Congress (considered by most political observers to be one of the least productive and most partisan in modern history) has seen some of the worst public approval ratings imaginable for a government institution.

At the heart of this political showdown was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as ‘Obamacare’. As of now, the government is divided. Barack Obama, a Democrat, occupies the White House and Democrats also have control of the Senate. Republicans, on the other hand, control the House of Representatives in which a large amount of conservative ‘Tea Party’-backed lawmakers have a prominent voice in House leadership. Several conservatives, such as Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have expressed strong disagreements with their Democratic colleagues over the implementation of the controversial Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law more than three years ago (before Republicans controlled the House of Representatives). While most Democrats have championed particular benefits of the new law, Cruz and his allies sharply criticize what they believe to be a potential intrusion into Americans’ personal freedoms.  It is Washington’s conventional belief, however, that President Obama has no intention of overturning his healthcare law and a sufficient number of Congressional Republicans refuse to support any spending bill that leaves Obamacare intact. Thus, partisan gridlock ensued and our government was essentially forced to close for 16 days.  Public opinion polls suggest that Republicans in Congress will get most of the blame for any negative fallout from a government shutdown and some are worried that no matter how principled their stand on Obamacare may be, it will risk Republicans being perceived as petty and stubborn. In other words, it may screw them in the end. That was certainly the case for Republicans who fought Clinton nearly two decades ago. While Clinton at the time was seen as politically vulnerable, the government shutdown in late 1995 helped reverse his fortunes for the better. Less than a year later, Clinton was re-elected while Republicans ended up losing in Congress. Many political observers believe that history may be repeating itself. Barack Obama himself was viewed as a rather weak candidate for re-election, yet Democrats kept the White House and the Senate under their control in the last election.

 However, one key issue from today’s feud stands separate from the political fights of the 90s: lifting the nation’s debt ceiling. In short, lifting the ‘debt ceiling’ is what Congress does when the federal government needs to borrow more money and can continue to pay bills already promised by the United States. Several top economists warned that if the U.S. did not act by Oct. 17, we would have been forced to default on our debt – which would carry serious economic consequences, to say the least. With a last-minute agreement now in place, though, the government seems to be out of the woods for the time being. So why all the fuss, exactly? It’s because any disruption of federal services is likely to hit our own communities here on the islands. International Business Times cited a report from finance network WalletHub, which stated that “DC, Maryland, Alaska, Hawai‘i, and Virginia have the most federal workers per capita and are thus disproportionately affected by the shutdown’s immediate impact.” UH Hilo Junior Shy Ronia, a Marine Science major, knows this fact all too well. Ronia is a ranger at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. Having been unpaid during the shutdown, she laments the current state of affairs and how they affect her, saying “It’s really sad to see our park closed. Not for just the rangers’ sake, but for the visitors as well. We have people come from all over the world to see our beautiful national parks. It’s a real shame when they have to be turned away. I truly hope this shutdown ends soon.” Moreover, WalletHub’s report also found that “delayed mortgage closing will have the largest impact on Hawai‘i, Florida, Arizona, Maryland, and Louisiana – the five states in which real estate accounts for the greatest portion of gross product.” The report also mentions the possibility for “disruptions to federal student aid programs,” an issue that, if the shutdown were prolonged, very well could have affected students at this school. If anything is to be learned from this shutdown debacle, it’s that what goes on in Washington, D.C. can have the potential to strengthen and nourish our homes and neighborhoods.  It can also wreck them.

Author’s Personal Reflection:  Now of course, I’m sure many people who are reading this might be asking themselves “Exactly how does this have an impact on me? Why should I care about what a bunch of rich politicians in D.C. argue over?” For those of you who still wonder “Why was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park closed, again?” or “Will any of my loans and scholarships still be affected?” now is the time to tune in to the news. We owe it to ourselves – and to this country – to actively engage and participate in what’s going on amongst our leaders at all levels of government.  

The underlying opinions in this article are solely those of UH Hilo’s very own political junkie, Brian Wild, and do not necessarily reflect those of Ke Kalahea’s.

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