As some of you may know, the US is in political turmoil at the moment. If you are a normal person and don’t really spend much time or energy following this, you may be scratching your head and wondering what the big deal is. Just typical politicians arguing over political stuff right? Not quite.
In the House of Representatives, the far-right Republican Party has refused to pass appropriations legislation in order to fund the activities of the federal government — hence, “government shutdown“. These activities include delivering pay checks to hundreds of thousands of federal workers (many now sitting idle), funding cutting edge medical research, opening and maintaining national parks, approving loans for small businesses and cleaning up toxic waste sites, to name just a few.
Furthermore, in a few day’s time the US government will reach its statutory borrowing limit (the “debt ceiling“). This limit is typically raised by Congress from year to year without controversy, and is necessary to pay creditors for debt the government has already incurred. The raising of the debt limit has been the occasion for some political grandstanding, but until the Republican Party in 2011, no-one has countenanced not raising it. Such a scenario would more likely than not trigger another financial crisis and plunge the country into another recession.
The House Republicans have shut down government and are refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless the centre-left Democrat Party submit to a list of demands. This originally included a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, legislation duly passed by Congress in 2009 and upheld by the Supreme Court that was designed to rein in healthcare expenditure and provide insurance to millions of uninsured.
Let me put it into plain English. House Republicans have manufactured two crises and are extorting the Democrats — who hold the balance of power in the Senate and the presidency — into implementing measures that American voters resoundingly rejected in the 2012 election. This is not an ordinary “he said, she said”, both sides are at fault, political stoush being fought in the legislative arena. This is a constitutional crisis happening in one of the oldest (and still grandest) democracies in the world.
So you can get up to speed with the state of American politics right now, let me break it down very simply for you.
Democrats: Thinks that government has an important role in serving the public and that honouring past debt is both practically and legally required — they are normal, necessary and non-negotiable in any functioning society.
Republicans: Thinks that government activities and the debt ceiling can serve as useful hostages to extract unilateral concessions from the other side, consequences be damned.
D: In relation to the budget, has been willing to make (and has made) tough compromises on cutting the safety net and other government investments, in return (hoping) for more revenue in the form of higher taxes on the rich and closing of tax loopholes.
R: Demands big cuts to the safety net and other spending, while refusing any form of higher revenue. Accuses Democrats of being unwilling to compromise due to their refusal to “negotiate” over the terms of the extortion.
D: Wants incremental, common-sense and widely supported gun control measures; comprehensive immigration reform; financial regulation (to prevent another GFC); action on climate change; universal preschool program; investment in infrastructure and scientific research.
R: Opposes all of the above. Wants to further reduce the friction of obtaining and carrying guns; further deregulate finance and other sectors (which would make another GFC more likely); does not believe in climate change, wants to expand fossil fuel industry; claims to care about the government’s deficit but wants more tax cuts for the rich (which would increase the deficit), while slashing aid to the poor (which is one of the most effective short-term economic boosters) and investment in infrastructure and scientific research (which would bolster America’s long-term economic growth).
Stunning, isn’t it?
When Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee seemingly had a good chance of winning the presidency, I mused to some of my friends that it might be a blessing in disguise. Maybe the American public will finally come to their senses when the Republican-led government drives the country off a cliff. Funnily (and disturbingly) enough, the moment has come anyway in quick and stark fashion.
Elections for the US House of Representatives will be held in November 2014. The next 12 months will be an interesting time. It will crystallise once and for all whether America has firmly stepped on the path of becoming a lumbering banana republic, or whether there is still some hope left in this once-great democracy.