In just seven days, if the House GOP has its way, the government of the United States will cease to function on an unprecedented scale. Close to half of the nation's 2.1 million federal workers will be told to stay home, with the remainder--including members of the Armed Forces stationed in active war zones--mandated to continue to work without receivng pay. Despite the fact that the loss of employment and national income--however temporary--on such a massive scale would be a body blow for the economy, fundamental questions of racial and economic justice lie at heart of this debate. The reality is that this pivotal fight over the role of government is the one that the House GOP has been searching for all along.
Just how did it come to this?
The immediate funding problem arose when this Congress, cited by the Pew Research Center as one of the least productive in recent history, failed to pass any of the 13 appropriations bills which together fund the federal government. These measures totaling $3.8 trillion in spending cover everything from clean water enforcement to the funding of distressed school districts to air traffic control.
With the government's fiscal year set to end on Oct. 1, Congress needs to pass a short-term spending measure to keep the doors open.
But instead of moving forward with a clean temporary spending measure, officially called a "continuing resolution," this past Friday the House GOP decided to load the bill down with language on a wholly different matter: the defunding of Obamacare. This despite the fact that, for months, President Obama has threatened to veto the zeroing out of the Affordable Care Act and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has long vowed that such a measure would never leave the Senate.
As confusing and shocking as the House's brinksmanship this week may be, it should not come as a surprise.
For the Tea Party-inspired members of the GOP who swept to victory in the 2010 congressional elections--and the billionaires who funded them--it was always about Obamacare. In their eyes, the Affordable Care Act was the latest in a decades-long expansion of government that had to be stopped at all costs. It's the issue that they used to win their seats in the first place. Since the GOP majority was sworn into office in 2011, the House has taken up 42 votes to defund Obamacare, and at key steps has taken action to weaken the government as a whole. Sequestration, this year's across the board budget cuts, are the most visible example, but there are others. The 2011 debate over the debt ceiling; the 2012 post-election argument over taxes; and the push for stop-gap extensions of borrowing authority this year have all been used to undermine the foundations of government by either sowing policy chaos or denying funding.
The timing and sequencing of each of these battles over the past several years has set up the current standoff. House Speaker John Boehener said last month, "What I'm trying to do here is leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices. We're going to have a whale of a fight."
That's why the Senate's tea party champion, Ted Cruz of Texas, pressed for his colleagues to "stand your ground" this past weekend on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.
Why the GOP "do or die" outlook?
Armed with the "makers vs. takers" philosophy Mitt Romney advanced, the Republicans who captured the lower branch of Congress in 2010 had a simple goal. The point was to sap the strength of the parts of the government that provide economic opportunity to those historically locked out of the American dream. The essential idea was to turn the resources of the government over to those whom they believe are more historically deserving through tax cuts funded by spending reductions. Which is why the House voted to slash food stamps, officially known as SNAP, by $40 billion on the same day that it essentially voted to shut down the government.
The problem is that economic facts don't line up with the House GOP's economic fiction. The truth is that the current slump is driven by economic inequality, driven by the government's turn away from economic justice and its racial dimensions. In fact there's a strong case to be made that the U.S. has been trying it the GOP's way for years, and that it hasn't worked.
As Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Jared Berstein points out, 95 percent of the $3 trillion gains in national wealth since 2000 have flowed to the top 1 percent. All the while the median income of American households is at its lowest level since 1989; wages are at a 40-year low; the unemployment rate for youth, blacks and Latinos is in the double digits; and African American and Latino wealth is the lowest on record. The almost million jobs forecast to be lost next year due to sequestration won't help, but neither will the fact that the country's tax burden for its wealthiest citizens is at its lowest level in 60 years. All of these facts lead Berstein to conlclude that there's a "deep disconnect" in the American economy. The same could be argued for its political system.
Though a last-minute legislative compromise might still avoid a shutdown, the bottom line is that next Tuesday most Americans will stand on the brink of an economic nightmare in order to fulfill the House GOP's unyielding economic fantasy. That is a fantasy they will continue to pursue, no matter the costs. Why wouldn't they? In their eyes, as Sarah Palin told Fox's Shannon Beam, shutting down the government and defunding Obamacare is a matter of "economic justice."