At the midnight of 30 September-1 October, US President Barack Obama’s administration went broke. Who is to blame for this catastrophe that can potentially derail not just America’s but the world economy, too? It is a small number of fiscal right-wingers that votes in internal elections of the Republican Party to choose candidates who challenge those of the Democratic Party in elections to the US Congress, the bicameral US legislature. And these Republican cadres now hold the US to ransom as elections to the 435-member House of Representatives, the lower house of the US Congress, are due in exactly 13 months.
The crisis stems from the refusal of the Republicans, who have a majority in the House, to approve Obama’s budget plan for the next year. They wanted Obama to first accept their amendments to his signature healthcare law of 2010, aka Obamacare, which goes into effect Tuesday. The Republicans hate it as it compels Americans to buy health insurance and forces governments to subsidise those who can’t. Obama binned their proposals which would have defunded and delayed Obamacare. In return, they junked his budget.
As was feared, this has caused a “shutdown” of the US government. Essential services such as air traffic control and airport security, the postal work, and social security payments under Medicaid and Medicare, America’s free healthcare for the poor and the elderly, would continue, as would the disbursement of the salaries to the defence personnel. But according to The New York Times, as many as 800,000 federal staff may be sent on leave. A million would be forced to work without pay during the shutdown.
Federal courts could sack staff if the standoff exceeds ten business days. Hearings could get delayed; new cases may not be taken up, creating a backlog. Elsewhere, loan approvals and disbursement could be delayed. Food and drug inspections would suffer. Federal hospitals would certainly turn away new patients. Most workplace safety inspections would stop. Additionally, many less urgent federally-paid pursuits, like federal zoos and museums, and major attractions such as the Statue of Liberty, would shut.
A shutdown of the US government is not an everyday occurrence and, if it persists, dangerously risks shattering the world economy. The last shutdown came 17 years ago when Bill Clinton was US President. It lasted 21 days, and cost $2 billion at that time. This shutdown is trickier as the US Congress must, by 15 October, raise the federal government’s debt limit so it can borrow more to pay its bills. If the highly polarised House doesn’t oblige Obama, his government would have no money to fulfill its past financial commitments, besides having no budget approval for the fiscal year that begins Tuesday. A government official has estimated it will have only $30 billion left by 17 October.
If this isn’t enough to trigger anger against the Republicans, Obamacare has repeatedly polled as a substantial favourite in the US. Many among those with uninsured health, who are 15 percent of America’s 30 million people, back the law as it would drastically lower their healthcare costs. Of course, the Republicans know that the negative publicity surrounding their refusal to pass the budget and their rabid opposition to Obamacare could repel voters. But they are victims of self-inflicted wounds. This is how they’ve done it.
Under US law, both chambers of the Congress must pass the government’s budget, unlike in India where the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, alone must. India’s government is drawn from the majority in the directly-elected Lok Sabha, so its budget passes easily. But unlike the Indian prime minister who is from Parliament, the US president’s office is statutorily outside the US Congress and has no agency to force a favorable vote in either legislative house unless his party has a majority in it. Even then, he can only cajole his party’s Congressmen and women and hope they will comply.
Obama’s budget has stalled as the Democrats hold a majority in only the Senate, the upper house, which has incidentally already passed his budget (with the Republicans, who are in a minority there, voting against, of course). But with the Republicans holding a majority in the House, the stalemate is now the classic presidential nightmare. On their part, the 230 House Republicans have little elbow space. At stake is their renomination as their party’s candidates for the election to the 435 House seats due in November 2014.
Unlike India’s Parliament whose upper house, the Rajya Sabha, is elected by state legislators, both houses of the US Congress are directly elected by its citizens. Senators keep six-year terms, with one-third seats up for election every two years. But the House is re-elected every two years, thus keeping its members politically vulnerable all the time.
The budget vote came at a time when House incumbents are six-to-eight months from their party’s internal elections, known as “primaries”, in their constituencies to qualify for the main contests. Though the Republicans are generally right-wing, the pressure to take ultra extreme positions is most on those looking to win a seat in the House. Many House Republicans would undoubtedly face stiff challenges from fellow Republicans to their right.
The House is akin to the Lok Sabha in that its members are elected by individual constituencies of roughly equally populations. The number of seats, therefore, vary across the states, with California having the most 53 seats and some states having only one each. In contrast, the US Senate has two members from each of the 50 American states, irrespective of their population sizes, elected by all voters in a state, for a total of 100.
Republicans looking to win primaries for the US Senate, in which party cadres across a given state vote, can afford a not-too-rightist aggregate position as the extremism of some would generally be somewhat offset by the lesser extremism of the other cadres. But many of those Republicans who seek their party’s nominations for the House need to heavily tack right to pander to the extremism of the party’s cadres that dominate their much smaller constituencies. For a number of House Republicans, therefore, now is not the time to think of the US government but of their upcoming primaries in their constituencies.
Another factor that has made a difficult situation worse for the Republicans is gerrymandering, the American word for constituency demarcation. Unlike in India where a statutorily autonomous Election Commission manages elections and also redraws constituencies, in the US the state legislatures hold that prerogative. Over the last few years, parties controlling various legislatures have manipulated constituency boundaries lumping neighbourhoods that vote them consistently, giving themselves political advantages at elections while creating constituencies of absurd shapes. But gerrymandering has become a double-edged sword for some House Republicans.
Greater confidence for a Republican victory in a gerrymandered constituency has emboldened the party’s red meat base to thrive in extremist positions in many states, especially in the largely rural and traditional parts of the Midwestern and southern US states. To win a primary among such voters many a Republican politician is pushed to the extreme right-wing. The House Republicans at the primaries must loudly proclaim their adherence to conservative America’s fundamental precepts of small government. Obamacare is their pet hate because it takes away the choice to not buy health insurance and, even worse, is built on the “socialist” principle of government subsidy.
Of course, the Republicans are only posturing to stress their credentials with their cadres. They know they have lost the battle on Obamacare. Mitt Romney, their candidate who fought Obama at last year’s presidential election, made it an issue and lost. This year, the US Supreme Court upheld the law to the Republicans’ dismay. Now that they have been heard loudly all over again, Americans — and indeed the rest of the world — should hope that, in Obama’s words last week, “one faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government” for too long.