It’s been an interesting time to be working on Capitol Hill. As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, the government has just reopened after being shut down for two weeks and three days, on the evening before the government would have defaulted on its debt if it hadn’t come to this agreement. With House and Senate offices operating with skeleton staff, Congress people and Senators have had to hash out some kind of deal which would allow them to pass a budget and fund, not just the government itself, but all federal programs, from NASA to the Department of Veterans Affairs to the National Parks.
For the past two weeks and three days “non-essential” federal workers haven’t been in work, and both they and the essential workers who have still had to come in haven’t been paid. They will all be receiving back pay now that the government has reopened, but those with government contracts will not, while the many businesses that rely on federal workers will never get the revenue they’ve lost back and small businesses that have been unable to get government loans will struggle to recover. The shutdown has cost the economy around $24 billion.
So what was this all for?
Well, from the Republicans perspective, nothing. They’ve not managed to delay Obamacare, they certainly haven’t managed to get rid of it, the debt ceiling has been raised and meanwhile they’re poll ratings have plummeted. Not that the Democrats have got anything good out of this situation either – they have managed to defend Obamacare and they haven’t had to give up anything up in exchange – but nobody wants to see their time in government wasted while they’re caught in the first government shutdown since 1996.
It’d be easy, as a Democrat, to blindly blame the Republican Party for holding the workings of the federal government hostage over a healthcare law that has already been passed. But while this was an awful thing to do, I don’t blame the Republican Party. During this shutdown, I’ve actually grown to respect a lot of Republican representatives – from John McCain, who has consistently said that the GOP should not have picked this fight the way they did, to Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate who helped to work out the bipartisan bill that went through the Senate (which over half the Senate Republicans voted for), to the 87 sensible Republicans in the House who voted with the Democrats for the bill to reopen the government. The Senate women’s caucus, featuring representatives from both parties, including Republicans Susan Collins from Maine and Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, as well as many brilliant Democrats like Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, were instrumental in getting the bill through the Senate.
To blame the whole of the Republican Party is completely missing the point. The Tea Party and people like its recent darling, Senator Ted Cruz, are the ones who made this whole debate, which should have been about the budget, about Obamacare and who were willing to take the government into shutdown over it. Ted Cruz, earlier today, called the actions of such Republicans a “courageous act”, a view which I’m sure would go down well with people who’ve been laid off because small businesses with government contracts couldn’t afford to keep them on during the shutdown.
There are also those representatives who are less obvious Tea Party hacks who deserve a share of the blame. Interestingly, today Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul both voted against the bill to reopen the government. Rubio, particularly, has a reputation for being a moderate, yet voted against this bill to reopen government, at the eleventh hour before the American government defaulted on its debt. Why? Well, this may not be the whole story, but both of these men have their sights on running for President. And they’ll need the votes of Tea Partiers to win the Republican Primary.
And then there’s Speaker Boehner, the chair of the House, who has, until now, refused to put a vote on the floor of the House. The Democrats have repeatedly said that if he put a bill forward, the votes would be there to pass it; today, finally, they were proved right. So why wouldn’t Boehner call of vote? Well, one theory says he was worried that he’d lose his speakership, because Tea Partiers would oust him.
It wasn’t the whole Republican Party that has been holding the government hostage for the past two weeks and three days. It was an extreme right wing faction and those it is pulling to the right with it.
So what does this mean for the future? Well, this deal has not ended the debate. What was passed was only a continuing resolution – which basically means government funding was approved, but isn’t a proper budget. This means we still have to reach a more long term agreement, or face another situation like the one in just in in a few months.
And with the Republicans being dragged further and further to the right, it’s going to be hard to come to a long term agreement.
It’s easy as a Democrat to rejoice at an increasingly unelectable Republican Party. But what might be making it easier to win elections is making it harder and harder to govern. The whole US system is based on reaching compromises, but when you have an extremist Republican faction which won’t compromise, which won’t accept that it can’t just have whatever it wants despite losing the Presidential and Senate elections, which won’t, frankly, act like adults, coming to such compromises is difficult, to say the least.
So while this may be making it easier for Democrats to be elected, what’s the point of being elected if you’re subsequent ability to govern is so stifled?
Trying to restore some sense to the Republican Party is a task that lies primarily with the increasingly exasperated moderates in that party, but there is one factor in this that is worth us all considering. Gerrymandering – the redrawing of congressional boundaries to create seats which will always vote for one party of another – is a large factor in this GOP swing to the right. There are now many seats where Republicans will always be elected, so instead of worrying about the electorate, they worry about the Primary, where the registered Republicans who will be voting are inevitably to the right of the mainstream. This is dragging the whole party to the right. Fixing the problem of gerrymandering is a problem for all parties.
I have to give a quick shout out to the absolutely fantastic Democrats in the House and in the Senate who have all worked so hard to end the shutdown. And here’s hoping we can really move forward from here and really start finding long term solutions to America’s problems (the President has said his first priority, starting tomorrow morning, is immigration reform which is exciting). But with the Tea Party still here, still powerful and still scarily detached from reality, getting things done in Washington DC is still going to be very difficult for a the foreseeable future.
Rachel Barker is a Young Fabian who is currently interning at the US Senate. She’s writing in a personal capacity.