On October 1, 2013, the federal government of the United States of America “shut down” due to a budget impasse between the House of Representatives, controlled by the Republican party, and the Senate, controlled by the Democratic party. The impasse manifested through the inability of Congress to pass an appropriations bill or continuing resolution to continue to fund the government. Without such passage of a bill, the government is bound by the Anti-Deficiency Act, which mandates some federal employees, such as soldiers and astronauts, continue to work while services considered “non-essential,” such as parks, are closed until a budget is passed (“Government Shutdown”). While a government shutdown is not unprecedented in the United States, it is usually related to actual budgetary issues. The government shutdown that occurred in October 2013 shows how divided the United States is politically—with politicians ideologically concerned about issues other than funding the government and politically intransigent in an effort to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”) that was passed in 2010.
In 2010, the House of Representatives became controlled by Republicans, thanks in part to a large voting bloc of conservative Americans who identified with the modern Tea Party. The turnout was in part due to what some Americans perceived as Democratic overreach in passing the Affordable Care Act (Jones). This resistance to the Act, now law, has become the single focus of many politicians who used obstructionist tactics and talked openly of shutting down the government, such as Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. His refusal to vote on the budget is not because of his concern for issues related to spending but because he wishes to defund the Affordable Care Act. Several news stories report on a study from IHS, a financial research firm, that the cost of the shutdown is estimated at roughly $300 million each day (Smialek and Katz). A short-term shutdown will have minimal impact, but anything longer than a week or so will, according to the IHS report, start to affect the growth rate of the economy because the millions of furloughed government workers will begin acting like the unemployed—spending less, holding off on big purchases, etc.—and such action will cause the economy to retract. Although one repeated plank of the Republican platform is to grow the economy and create jobs, the politicians would rather focus on combating a single issue. Cruz’s own website, jobsgrowth.com, has a splash page image with the single open-ended sentence: “We need to defund Obamacare because…” Rhetoric elsewhere on the page speaks to creating jobs and growing the economy, but the opposite of those things are happening because Cruz and his allies in Congress are focused on defunding the Affordable Care Act. This is just one reason why the shutdown is not related to financial issues but instead related to political agendas on the part of obstructionist politicians.
While many of the circumstances between the government shutdown of 2013 and the government shutdown of 1995–1996 are dissimilar, the political actions by members of the Congress in October 2013 can be compared to the previous government shutdown that lasted for 21 days in 1995–1996 with a Republican-controlled Congress and Bill Clinton as the President. According to Alfred Hill, such a shutdown was a new type of politics in which, “Congress clearly has legislative competence with regard to the level of taxation, the welfare system, environmental protection, and so forth. But it does not follow that Congress may achieve its ends unilaterally in such matters by withholding appropriations” (275). In November 1995 through January 1996, Republicans, controlling both chambers of Congress, shut down the government for a period of 28 total days. They did so in an effort to force Clinton to accept their reduced funding proposals for services such as education and social services. Clinton vetoed the bill sent to him, and as a result, the federal government was left without funding. Hill is referring to the entirety of Congress in his article, whereas today it is only a bloc of the Republican Party, mostly in the House of Representatives who are trying to unilaterally get their agenda passed by withholding appropriations. Thus, the actions by Republican lawmakers are not in reaction to a unique set of circumstances in 2013, it is a pre-established political tactic.
The results of the government shutdown in 1995–1996 achieved its goals according to the members of the GOP who used the shutdown to push their agenda. From the perspective of fiscal hawks such as Newt Gingrich, is the indirect passage of the 1997 Balanced Budget Act and four years of balanced federal budgets (Gingrich). Gingrich’s view is certainly biased, and opponents may refute this claim and point out issues where the government’s fiscal policy in the late 1990s hurt Americans, but that’s not the point. Gingrich believed there was a connection with his actions on a fiscal principle that used money and the budget to accomplish fiscal goals, namely a balanced budget. This is in contrast to the 2013 shutdown, wherein one of the staunchest opponents of the Affordable Care Act, Ted Cruz, filibustered for 20 hours and then supported other senators to end his own filibuster (Weisman). Such an uncommon event in the Senate that has no real political productivity shows the lack of a clear goal in regard to the issue of appropriations and instead a focus on partisan politics.
It could be argued that the Republicans see the Affordable Care Act as a disastrous piece of healthcare legislation that will tank the economy, and that argument certainly does exist. One can look at articles by people such as Lexi Cory to see the fiscal argument against the Affordable Care Act, including the debate about the methodology and bias of the information. And even proponents of the legislation aren’t entirely sure how much the program will cost and if it will affect healthcare prices, but the arguments being levied during the shutdown by the GOP bloc that is obstructing the passage of an appropriations bill are rhetorical and about freedom and liberty, with senators such as Cruz comparing support of the Affordable Care Act as similar to tacit support for fascism 70 years ago in Europe (Weisman). It’s bombastic rhetoric that is not coherently or consistently grounded in discussion of fiscal impact. Therefore, it is difficult to conclude the GOP is arguing from a position of similar concern for the economy and more like they are using appropriations as a political tool for their agenda.
The government shutdown of 2013 coincided with the first day that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, went into effect. Unlike previous government shutdowns, which were concerned with limiting spending, this shutdown happened because a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives used their power of spending to try to push through an ideological agenda related to a different issue. The government shutdown happened because of divided politics in the country and the pursuit of a political agenda instead of the appointed duty to effectively steward and manage the nation’s budget. The impact and duration of this shutdown remain to be seen.
Gingrich, Newt. “If It Comes to a Shutdown, the GOP Should Stick to Its Principles.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company, 25 February 2011. Web. 1 October 2013.
“Government Shutdown.” USA.gov. 01 October 2013. Web. 01 October 2013.
Hill, Alfred. “Opinion: The Shutdowns and the Constitution.” Political Science Quarterly. 115:2, 2000. Pp. 273–283. EBSCOHost.
Jones, Jeffrey. “Americans Give GOP Edge on Most Election Issues.” Gallup Politics. Gallup Inc. 1 September 2010. Web. 1 October 2013.
Smialek, Jeanna, and Ian Katz. “Shutdown Will Cost U.S. Economy $300 Million a Day, IHS Says.” Bloomberg. Bloomberg L.P, 1 October 2013. Web. 1 October 2013.
Weisman, Jonathan. “A New Senator Stops Talking, and a Vote on Spending Nears.” The New York Times. The NYT Company, 25 September 2013. Web. 1 October 2013.