US in crisis as government shutdown triggered

Mad as hell: A member of the public berates Republican congressmen © Getty Images

The Grand Canyon closed, the Pentagon on a skeleton staff, thousands of government workers on forced unpaid leave: how dangerous is this paralysis of the world’s richest country?

Today, a small band of zealous and uncompromising ideologues threaten to bring the world’s most powerful nation to its knees. To some, they are ‘vandals’. President Barack Obama has branded their tactics ‘crazy’, while stock markets panic in countries as far flung as China. Yet to their dedicated supporters, these people are nothing less than ‘heroes’.

Who are the rebel agitators? Terrorists? Guerillas? No: they are nothing less than a group of senior politicians from one of the two most powerful parties in the United States.

The crisis gripping America stems from a bitter debate over the government’s budget for the coming year. On one side is Barack Obama, who favours moderate levels of taxation and spending and who is also demanding funding for the healthcare plan which he spent his first presidential term fighting to put on the law books. On the other is a group of radical Republicans who hold sway in the lower chamber of the US Congress.

Until they can agree a deal over how to raise and spend money, many offices of the US state will cease to function. This would mean that hundreds of thousands of government workers would cease to be paid, national parks would shut and even the secret service would be reduced to a stump. The cost to the economy could well exceed £1 billion.

An agreement seems essential. Yet one senator spoke for 21 hours straight in protest against Obama’s signature healthcare reforms. And the bill that Republicans finally submitted looked less like the opening salvo of a negotiation than an exhaustive wish list of audacious demands: slash taxes and welfare, drop controls on drilling for oil, privatise government services. Finally, deny funding to controversial ‘Obamacare’.

The authors of this bill know that Obama will not sign it: their proposals are the opposite of everything that he has promised to pursue. This is not just hard bargaining, one commentator said, but ‘a declaration of all out war on our system of government’.

Sabotage!

Give us everything or we’ll destroy the country! is the sort of demand only a broken party in a broken system could hope to make,’ says one liberal commentator. This refusal to cooperate with the government is more than reckless: it is sabotage on the most spectacular scale.

But to some right-wing Americans, that is precisely the point. Meddlesome governments, elected or otherwise, are the greatest enemy of individual liberty, and Obama’s plans would allow the tentacles of the state to creep further into Americans’ life than ever before. An interfering government is more destructive than no government at all.

You Decide

  1. Should politicians compromise their principles in order to ensure a functional government?
  2. ‘Most bad government has grown out of too much government’ – Thomas Jefferson, third president of the USA. What does he mean, and do you agree?

Activities

  1. Imagine the government suddenly disappeared today. As a class, think of as many consequences as you can. How many of them are positive?
  2. ‘Throughout history, governments have done far more harm than good.’ Write a short plan for an essay evaluating this statement.

Some People Say...

“Giving money and power to the government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.’ PJ O’Rourke”

What do you think?

Q & A

What would happen if the US government really did close?
It could be fairly disastrous, if not quite as apocalyptic as it immediately sounds: the government would still continue its essential functions. But forcing hundreds of thousands of workers to take unpaid leave would wreak domestic havoc and seriously harm a global economy still recovering from financial crisis. And unless these issues are solved soon things could get even worse.
How?
The US government needs a deal before October 17th or it will no longer have a licence to borrow money. If that deadline goes by, the world’s most powerful economy could default on its debts. That would be a genuine catastrophe with dire implications for every nation in the world.

Word Watch

Budget
Arguably the most important function of any legislative body is to decide how a government will gather and spend its money. In the USA, plans are drawn up annually by Congress. But they do not become law until they are signed by the President. If Congress is controlled by a party that isn’t the President’s, both must usually compromise.
Healthcare plan
The USA has some of the best hospitals in the world, but to use them citizens must be covered by expensive health insurance. Around 50 million Americans have no such insurance, and must choose between coughing up enormous costs every time they fall ill, or attending the far inferior publicly-funded hospitals instead. Obama’s plan guarantees affordable insurance for all, but some on the right see this as an attack on personal choice.
Republicans
The ‘Grand Old Party’ of America, founded in the 1850s to prevent the spread of slavery. Today the Republicans are increasingly right wing.They harbour a group of anti-government radicals called the Tea Party, who want to strip back the state to its barest essentials. Their opponents are the centrist Democrats.
US Congress
The American parliament. Congress contains two chambers: the Senate houses two members from each of America’s 50 states, while the House of Representatives has one member for each of the country’s 435 constituencies. Unlike the UK prime minister or the German chancellor, the president is not a member of the national parliament.

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