Democracy Inaction 2013: Showdown in Congress

by Bella Pori

It’s almost October, and that means the leaves are changing colors, the pumpkin spice latte is back, and the country once again finds itself on the brink of a possible government shutdown.

McConnell, Cantor, and Boehner: Obamacare haterz.

If you don’t know what a government shutdown would entail, you’re not alone! Until two weeks ago, I thought a government shutdown meant that the police would stop working, firefighters would let houses burn down, and public schools would close. That is not the case. A government shutdown does not mean the country stops working. However, it does mean that the government stops providing many non-essential services as decided by the Office of Management and Budget. Generally, agencies continue to operate in a shutdown if they are essential to protect our nation or the safety and life of the people in it. Our military would continue to fight overseas, doctors and nurses would continue to report to public hospitals, border patrol would keep going to work on the border, and our prisons would be staffed.

So how would this affect you, a student content in the Barnard bubble? First, and probably most importantly to many of us, students cannot take out student loans during a government shutdown. That means that if you happen to need extra money in October to pay your tuition bill you will not be able to take out a low-rate loan through the school and would have to take out a loan through a bank, which has a higher interest rate.

Sorry Gary, you’ve been furloughed. Congrats on the Emmy!

Secondly, I’m sure there are some of you who have parents who work for the government. A government shutdown means hundreds of thousands of government employees would go without pay for the duration of the shutdown. The government shutdowns in 1995-1996 lasted 28 days. There is the possibility that a large number of public servants, including my father and some of your parents, would not be paid for the duration of the shutdown.

And while Social Security checks are considered a mandatory service and should be sent out during a government shutdown, the Social Security Administration may not be able to pay employees to process and send them. If a shutdown were to last more than a month, there is a possibility that many of our relatives will not get the money that has become an important part of their income.

Finally, the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan think tank in Congress estimated that the two shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 cost the government close to $1.4 billion. In a fight over spending and debt, it seems shocking that elected officials would even consider such a costly move.

If you still need a reason to be angry about a possible shutdown, there is the potential that Congress would receive their paychecks, even as thousands of Americans are furloughed. Changing Congressional pay takes legislation, and while a bill that stops pay for elected officials in a shutdown has passed in the Senate, the House has not. There is no reason why our elected officials should be paid if they force thousands of Americans to take an undetermined amount of unpaid leave. These people were not elected to destroy the government, they were elected to run it.

This has pretty much become the way of Washington.

So why is a government shutdown even being considered as a possibility? There is a committed group of Republicans in the House and the Senate who are refusing to vote for any budget that funds Obamacare. Republicans in the House will not pass the Senate budget, which contains no provision to defund Obamacare. Conversely, the Democrat-controlled Senate will not pass a budget from the House that makes dramatic cuts to social services. As if this wasn’t enough, the deadline to raise the debt ceiling is October 17. Over the past several years, congressional Republicans have used the debt ceiling as a political pawn, threatening to force the country to default on its loans rather than pass legislation opposing their conservative agenda. This year, Republicans are continuing with the same tactic, putting a fragile economy at serious risk of recession.

On Friday, the House passed a continuing appropriations resolution to fund the government through mid-December. This bill stripped funding for Obamacare and passed along party lines, with 228 Republicans voting for the bill and 188 Democrats voting against it. One Republican joined the Democrats to vote against the bill, and two Democrats voted to defund Obamacare. This resolution was then sent to the Senate, which yesterday voted 100-0 to begin debate on the bill, despite a 21-hour speech from Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) against Obamacare. Now, the Senate has 30 hours to debate the bill, during which time the Democratic majority will remove the provision that cuts funding to Obamacare. If the Senate passes a modified version of the bill, it must be sent back to the House. This could happen as late as Sunday, giving the House little time to debate or pass the bill. If both houses of Congress do not pass the same bill by Tuesday, the country will face a government shutdown.

If the idea of a shutdown enrages you, I urge you to call your Representative and Senators and make your voice heard. Remind your elected officials that you helped put them in office, and that they have a responsibility to protect your interests over their own.

Bella Pori is a junior at Barnard and a guest political contributor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of Politico, TV Line, and Forbes.

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