Crisis and Consequence – When the Government Goes Blank

It is a sunny morning in Washington DC. The streets are overflowing with busy people in suits, hurrying through the traffic, iPhone and take-away-coffee in hand. Nobody can believe the intense heat at 10 am, especially since we just entered October. I am halfway up the stairs to my all-time favorite National Portrait Gallery, whose courtyard offers cool air and a quiet place to work, when a tired security guard stops me; “Sorry miss, museum’s closed.” Annoyed, I ask why, and that has the guard staring at me as if I were from another planet. “You didn’t read the news today? Government’s closed.” I have never heard of such a thing before and for a second I am completely lost. “How can a government be closed?” I ask confusedly. The guard snorts. “You tell me.”

A history of deadlocks

Although the news has been upsetting both nationally and globally, this is not the first time in the history of US politics that the Government has closed down. In 1995-96, under the presidency of Clinton, there was a similar event that paralyzed the nation for a span of 26 days. During the 60’s-80’s, there were also a number of shorter shutdowns due to disagreement over certain spending issues; during which federal employees could still work. The difference between these and the longer one is that in the mid-90’s the work force was being affected: federal workers were sent home on indefinite leave without pay. This is what America is facing with today’s shutdown. Though, what differs between then and now seems to be that utter lack of face-to-face communication between the Republican-ruled House of Representatives and the Democrat-controlled Senate. In the 90’s, negotiations started early on in the shutdown and there was a clear plan as to how they would be held. In 2013, amongst all the press and media buzz, there is still no word of how a resolution would be achieved, a week into the initial shutdown.

Games afforded by few

The current status quo shows shows no sign of willingness to bridge from either side of the parties in conflict, stirring frustration among the public. An estimated 1% of the national economy is lost every day and it is obvious to all that whatever happens from now on, it’s still going to be a hard hit on the state, which is already dealing with a harsh economic climate. What has been made official so far is that the actual code of Congress allows a minority to block decision-making by simply saying they disagree to any proposal, and that right now a group of few (Republicans) refuse to sign the Government’s budget unless the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare) is defunded, effectively denied operational resources. Since the rest of the political landscape cannot – and will not – do so, there is an irresolvable deadlock. Many blame the Republicans in Congress for holding the Government hostage and furloughing 800,000 federal employees nationwide. Others think the Affordable Care Act itself is the root cause to the problem, considering that the people in power do not seem able to agree upon it, even after it has been passed and signed by all parties involved. What the crowd clearly agrees upon is that they are all tired of the intricate games that leave the rest of the country to struggle with paying their bills.

Money go, but none come

As all of this is happening, a lot of what the media reports focuses either on the public opinion or on what actually is going on behind closed doors in the White house. Even though these are two highly important matters of the now, one cannot help but ask the question of what actual consequences this shutdown will have. Dr. John Kelly, PhD and professor at the National Defense University in Washington, believes the consequences will be dire – both immediate and long term. He explains that, due to the loss per day in the national budget and the immense number of people now being at home without an income, there is going to be a serious damage to the US economy. As the Republicans aim to push the situation towards a debt ceiling debate to prove how the Government cannot keep up, the US Government itself is starting to run out of money to pay its bills. At the same time they have started promising repays for some sections of federal employees and nobody knows any longer where that money is supposed to come from. In a short: money is lost in a fast pace to give more time to a blank government and soon there will be no more to spend; “even if we lose 1% per day for 17 days – which is what it looks like it’s going to be – we’re looking at a 17% hit on the US economy, which is massive.” When looking at the global consequences of the economic state the US is now in, Dr. Kelly says he believes this will degrade American credibility on the international market, as the money invested in the United States at such an instable time has no insurance of being paid back.

Separation of society and state

There is also a potential of social collapse, as the American people – so far only moderately displeased with the handling of the crisis – are gaining increasing awareness of the way the shutdown is preventing things from working as usual. Trashcans not being emptied, streets not being cleaned, major delays in flight traffic and federal areas – including all national parks and even the Potomac River in Washington – being closed, all stand as clear examples to the public that something really is not right. It is, to say the least, a very uncomfortable situation. Another aspect of this is the knowledge and ability being lost in furlough, as hundreds of thousands federal workers are, as Dr. Kelly puts it, “unable to do what they do as professionals, whether it’s environmental permits or finance development”. Not only does this affect the economy, it can also crimp society. A situation like this – where the actions of a group of politicians affect a whole country – can also alienate a political party from the people, resulting in mistrust and disappointment that will serve as a social blueprint for the years to come. The unity that was present after Obama’s re-election is gone, and it is obvious that the people and the politicians indeed are not in the same boat.

“No middle ground”

At this point, Dr. Kelly explains, there is no way to backdown from conflict for either party; by deciding early on that none of them will give up this fight “they have all put themselves in a corner that is very difficult to escape from, and that in turns makes for a political climate where it is impossible to work anything out, because there is no middle ground.” He also believes that this eventually will escalate to a zero tolerance attitude between Republicans and Democrats, which will result in a permanent lack of civility even after the shutdown has come to an end. The situation reminds him of the McCarthy era during the Cold War, where extremism was encouraged through an ‘us or them’ attitude. Only now, it is not about America vs. Soviet, but a matter of the two political parties in Congress, as Republicans with a more liberal agenda are pushed further towards the extreme right under accusations of disloyalty towards their own party. The Democrat way of handling this is of course to stay put and by offering resistance digging even deeper into their wheel tracks. Again, this will most likely have “a dramatic impact on the world’s view of the US and Obama himself, as he proves unable to communicate with an extreme minority” according to Kelly, who also recognizes American credibility will drop worldwide as many promises made can no longer be kept, primarily referring to Syria. “Any military action is off the map at this point”, and apparently there is no change to be seen any time soon in that matter.

As I walk back home from the interview with Dr. Kelly, passing the same security guard still standing outside the National Portrait Gallery, I think about the professor’s answer to one of my most curious questions: “Should we be worried?” Since the media is eager to catalyze a storm of mainly complaints, and people in general seem more frustrated than worrisome, it seemed distant to think the situation too serious. The answer I received from the supposed expert was neither comforting nor targeting a specific threat: “The shutdown of the worlds leading economy, and a political superpower besides, will have a palpable effect nationally and globally, to an extent we yet cannot foresee.”

Text: Katja Slonawski
Photo: Raquel Baranow @Flikr

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