My Take on the Great Gov’t Shutdown of 2013

I’ve blogged about many historical events over the years, deeply exploring significant events for Medicaid and health care reform, for state politics, for national politics…and I think the current federal government shutdown is one of the most significant political events I’ve covered.  I think it represents a major turning point.

Fiorello LaGuardia famously said “There is no Democratic or Republican way of cleaning the streets,”¹ sometimes remembered as “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to take out the garbage,” which expresses a perceived truism, an underlying assumption that while political parties may disagree ferociously on many issues, all candidates agree on their basic role, and will take out the garbage, be competent.  For nearly the entirety of U.S. history, this has been true; you could take it for granted that the government would keep up basic services just to avoid the embarrassment.  Electoral self-interest if nothing else.  In Profiles in CourageJohn F. Kennedy put it this way, “Of course, both major parties today seek to serve the national interest. They would do so in order to obtain the broadest base of support, if for no nobler reason.”²

These truisms are no longer true.  We can no longer take it for granted that “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to take out the garbage.”  The Republicans will now vote to stop picking up garbage and everything else (literally, Washington, DC garbage collection ground to a halt during the 1995-96 government shutdown and more of that can be expected this month) unless their demands are met.  And their demands aren’t clear this time around, whereas in ’95 the conflict was more along the lines of “Democrats want spending to be Y and Republicans want spending to be X” and the Congress failed to pass a CR to fund things until a compromise was reached, after a combined 21 days of the federal government being closed.

In this shutdown, the reason isn’t a budget conflict.  As near as I can tell, the reason is “because Obamacare.”  Which is bizarre, since Obamacare exchanges are one of the only parts of the federal government they didn’t shut down.  That’s right, we’ve closed the NIH, HHS, Homeland Security, FEMA, the CDC, the FCC, EPA, DOE, the Department of Education, military academies—in New York State alone there’s West Point and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (also known as the Midshipman’s Academy, where all classes have been canceled until further notice),

a National Park Service guard puts up a closed sign in front of the Lincoln Memorial, reading "because of the federal government shutdown all national parks are closed."
a National Park Service guard puts up a closed sign in front of the Lincoln Memorial, reading “because of the federal government shutdown all national parks are closed.”

NASA, the National Park Service, meaning every national monument and national park—from Yellowstone to Yosemite, from the Lincoln Memorial to Mt. Rushmore, and even the baby panda at the National Zoo—are on hold until further notice, and that’s a short list, plus we can’t forget that some people at the above agencies, and many more in departments like the FAA, NSA, the Secret Service, people at the NOAA and the National Weather Service, the judges and clerks and bailiffs of the entire federal judiciary, the Capitol police—and hopefully the person feeding the pandas and other animals at the National Zoo—are working as “essential employees” without pay, but have to come in nonetheless, and Congress has caused all this SNAFU over Obamacare but Obamacare itself is untouched by the shutdown.  So we have this super surreal scene of nearly the whole government shutting down Oct. 1 as the Affordable Care Act exchanges opened Oct. 1.

So, as this political cartoon by Omaha World-Herald‘s Jeff Koterba satirizes, furloughed federal employees could shop for health insurance on the Obamacare exchanges with their new-found free time.

Ah yes, the “evil socialist plot” of people shopping for and buying health insurance online continues.

If I had time to draw my own political cartoon on this, it would show the “House of Reprehensibles” on one side, the capitol dome boarded up, giant “CLOSED” and “NO OBAMACARE” signs, and tumbleweeds of a ghost town in the foreground, and on the other side there’s a panel cut-out with a representation of the digital world, computer up front and everyone wrapped around for blocks to sign up beneath a green sign reading “OBAMACARE EXCHANGES – OPEN.”

The government’s shuttered in protest of Obamacare.  Obamacare is open for business.  No one seems to emphasize this insane contradiction.

As much as I have problems with the Affordable Care Act, primarily its failure to prioritize the most disabled and most vulnerable, leaving those who are in poverty because of serious disability and/or chronic illness to make due with increasingly underfunded Medicaid and Medicare systems, I don’t want it defunded or repeated and I see government shutdown as counter to everything we need.
And as much as I have problems with Barack Obama, he’s right to not cave to this nonsense.  He’s right to say “you don’t get to demand concessions for doing your job.”  He’s right to say “you’re not doing me some sort of favor by doing the most basic part of your role, some sort of favor you can exchange for concessions.”

If the President caves, the danger is we have to play chicken with national ruin every year and no medium-term or long-term programs can be sustained and projects we undertake as a great civilization, like next gen energy, new transit and internet infrastructure, lunar or Martian bases, new breakthroughs in medicine, can’t happen.  Gone will be anything outside of the typical venture capital cycle.  This is an important TED Talk about the United States’ decades-long failure to tackle longer-term, more ambitious projects.  These larger projects are what make us a great nation.  Much more attention should be paid to this, because I think it’s make-or-break for us on a civilizational level.

The gerrymandering has gotten so bad, the House districts-“base of support” so narrow, we’ve got rightist extremism unprecedented in recent decades, something I’ve tried to describe on this blog.³   Next, I want to blog about HOW and WHY an alarming number of Congressional Republicans have apparently devolved, regressing from comparably responsible businessman-types to incoherent lunatics so rage-inebriated that they’re about one notch above tantrum-ing toddlers scribbling “WHO IS JOHN GALT” in their own feces on the walls of the Capitol rotunda.

But back to my main point, I think this shutdown represents a major turning point because it’s the first time the “LaGuardia rule”—that “there’s no Democratic or Republican way to take out the garbage”—has been broken this brazenly and visibly. In the upcoming midterm elections in autumn 2014, Democrats may finally have something that they’re not too inept to communicate clearly and consistently, run on, and win on: “my opponent is for shuttering the government.”  There could be a tectonic shift ahead, a tipping point when voters become reluctant to re-elect guys who hate the federal government too much to keep basic services going.

President Obama is reclining with his hands behind his head while giving the House GOP all the rope needed to hang themselves.  Of course, key Tea Partiers don’t see the backlash coming from within their hermetically-sealed media echo chamber.



1. Attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City, by Murray W. Stand in Charles Garrett, The La Guardia Years, Machine and Reform Politics in New York City (1961), p. 274.

2. John F. KennedyProfiles in Courage (1956), p. 15.

3. see past posts tagged Republican Revolution II. I think many of the Tea Party’s grievances spring from a legitimate place, and do try to be fair.  Generally I’m much more sympathetic to the movement than its members of Congress.