Friday, October 18, 2013

We all pay for shutdown in dollars and trust -- Oct. 17, 2013 column


President Barack Obama says there were no political winners in the crisis over the federal government shutdown and debt limit. Most Americans, regardless of their political persuasion, probably agree.

In Washington, though, every moment has a winner and a loser. Once the latest financial calamity was averted, most political analysts thought the president was a winner because he showed some spine, gave up nothing and kept his signature health care legislation intact.

Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, were losers because they totally misread the political landscape. Their ill-conceived attempt to defund Obamacare shut down the government, idled 800,000 workers for 16 days and hurt the economy – but it yielded only a minor tweak in the health care law. People who seek subsidies to buy insurance on the exchanges will have to provide income verification.

Some tea party Republicans cling to the fig leaf notion that their failed fight over the shutdown actually awakened the nation to the evils of the Affordable Care Act and support will blossom.  Really?  

Meanwhile, every Democrat, Republican and independent coast to coast will pay the cost of the federal shutdown in dollars -- and also in the incalculable currency of trust.

The pricetag of the latest shutdown hasn’t been released, but two shutdowns lasting a total of 26 days in 1995-96 cost more than $1.4 billion, the Congressional Research Service reported. That’s $2.1 billion in current dollars. Most of the money went for back pay for furloughed federal workers.

The dollar waste is unnecessary and maddening. Trust in our institutions and government is in short supply.  

To squander the people’s trust hurts our political system and is heartbreaking.  

“The American people are completely fed up with Washington,” Obama said Thursday.  He’s right, of course, but it would be nice if he or anyone else could say that Washington has learned from its misadventure and will work to rebuild the trust it has squandered. There are only glimmers that some in Congress have learned lessons.   

In reaching the deal, members of Congress did what they should have done months ago. They did their jobs. 

The bipartisan agreement reopened the government and raised the debt limit, allowing the United States to pay the bills it racked up with two unfunded wars and an unfunded Medicare drug benefit. It’s merely a reprieve that postpones the fight. In two months or so, we may face another fiscal crisis. 

The plan Obama signed Thursday funds the government through Jan. 15 and raises the debt ceiling through Feb. 7. On the way there, a bipartisan, bicameral budget conference is supposed to come up with a long-term plan on tax and spending policies by Dec. 13. The two Republicans on the conference committee voted against the bill ending the crisis, and the two Democrats voted for it. That’s hardly a promising sign.

A glimmer of hope is the 14 centrist senators led by Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who worked together on an agreement that served as a point of departure for the final deal. The centrists were disappointed their plan didn’t prevail, but they pledge to keep working together.   

The next round of negotiations could take place in an even  more acidic political atmosphere because of the calendar.  

Obama chided Republicans on Thursday, saying, “You don’t like a particular policy or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election. Push to change it. But don’t break…what our predecessors spent over two centuries building.”

Some analysts say the looming 2014 congressional elections could have a sobering effect on conservatives in the House. In most congressional districts, though, a Republican incumbent fears a challenger from his right more than a Democratic one. For most House members, compromise in Washington can be a terrible career move.

Traditionally, people hate Congress but like their own member of Congress. That may be changing. About three in four people said they want to see most members of Congress defeated next year. And about four in 10 said they’d like to retire their own member of Congress, a new Pew Research Center survey found.

It’s very possible that we’ll  lurch once again from one financial crisis to the next. That not only would be a shame but would be a drain on what’s left of trust in government.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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