Everyone and their crazy uncle has been weighing in on the government shutdown this week. At least people are paying enough attention to be angry; it’s almost heartening to see that this most basic indicator of civic consciousness — popular outrage at federal incompetence — is still operating.
Sadly, I’m not prepared to give the American people much more credit than that. As stubborn, mendacious, ignorant and heedlessly destructive as some of our representatives have been, we are, after all, the same electorate who put them in power. If you haven’t already, check out the melancholy true-life parody of The American Voter that Jimmy Kimmel enacted by prompting people on the street to denounce Obamacare in favor of the Affordable Care Act. Our capital may be broken but voters who can’t be bothered with facts can’t pretend to be guiltless victims.
Of course, with billions of Koch brothers dollars devoted to disinformation on the healthcare law, it can be hard to keep it straight. A quick run-through of the legislative history of the law in question may be instructive. While the insurance exchanges promised by it only opened for enrollment this week, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law by the President more than three and a half years ago after a protracted process of negotiations that lasted from 2008 until 2010. Since 2010, the law has been subject to review twice by two groups which have the power to abolish it. First, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Act in its June 2012 decision, National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. Then, in the 2012 elections, Americans re-elected President Obama and increased the Democratic majority in the Senate at a time when the healthcare debate was one of the signal issues of contention. Contrary to what some believe, the moniker “Obamacare” does not actually mean that the legislation was handed down by executive fiat. The provisions of the ACA have been reviewed by every possible check built into our government and survived.
The hypocrisy of the instigating party verges on the surreal. Having failed to repeal the law through all the conventional avenues, the Republican-controlled House upped the ante, vowing to vote against any continuing resolution to fund the government that didn’t repeal or delay implementation of the ACA. In effect, the radical cabal, that has come to dominate the meeker moderates of the Republican Party, has decided not to govern by the rules. This is an interesting development for a group of politicians who consider themselves Constitutional originalists. Tea Party representatives have elevated their opportunistic and narrow interpretation of patriotism to a quasi-religious dogma (replete with hounding inquisitions against any fellow Republican judged to be insufficiently orthodox). They regularly flaunt their pocket Constitutions as if holding a document you don’t understand at all times makes that document mean what you want it to mean. Yes, the government has been shutdown before. But as Professors Ellen Fitzpatrick and Theda Skocpol note, “in none of these episodes did a minority attempt to undo a major law by the sorts of threats against democratic decisions we see today.”
So, why are these same characters acting as though the only way to get their way is to subvert the very legislative framework they so fervently claim to protect? If the Constitution is the ultimate guidebook for governing America, in deciding to cripple the government by inventing new, extra-constitutional ways around standard law-making procedures, the radical conservatives in Congress are, by definition, committing one of the most egregious anti-Constitutional offenses in our nation’s history.
The hypocrisy just thickens from there. Conservatives claim that the primary rationale for obstructing the ACA is the economic stress the program will put on business owners to provide healthcare for their employees, and the uncertainty this requirement will inject into American markets. There’s plenty of evidence that this much-hyped concern has been enormously overblown. But even if it weren’t, the rationale is truly head-scratching in the context of the massive economic risk — and ongoing financial damage — the shutdown itself poses. If they are worried about consumer and investor confidence, it might behoove them to avoid jeopardizing the American government’s status as a credible borrower and lender. Meanwhile, the direct costs of the shutdown have been estimated to be at least $300 million per day.
Maybe I’m not giving the Tea Party enough credit for its cunning. Maybe this is all part of a grand scheme to fatally wound the public credibility of the American government in order to create the libertarian utopia so many of their supporters dream of. What smart young person will want to work for such a broken, dysfunctional, backward thinking institution when they can work in the dynamic private sector for a guaranteed wage? Or maybe the point is simply to create a diversion from the non-platform that their faction of the Republican Party presents — if they can make this debacle more about political in-fighting than about the policy issue at hand, disillusioned voters may let them stay in office long after their convoluted ideology has been exposed as incoherent.
This is why it’s so important that we, the voters, don’t chalk this debacle up to standard partisan feuding for which “they’re both to blame.” Misguided fatalism will undo our democracy if we accept this unprecedented devolution of political decorum as the new status quo. Pay enough attention to be able to assign fault, and act on your convictions. The shutdown and the spectacle on the Hill may seem to unfold with the same morbid hilarity and implausibility as a bad dream. The repercussions, however, are all too tangible.