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Everything Stops For Tea

interior-shutdownPublished in the Sunday Herald on October 6, 2013.

Nobody wants the United States government to remain shut down. That, at least, is the official line. John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives that is refusing to sign over the money required to put 800,000 public employees back to work, told reporters: “This isn’t some damn game! The American people don’t want their government shut down and neither do I. All we’re asking for is to sit down and have a discussion.”

Someone should tell that to the congressmen on his party’s right flank, because from the start, the Tea Party caucus has been demanding that the Obama adminstration’s biggest legislative achievement be gutted in return for a temporary extension of credit. The Affordable Care Act, which is now almost always referred to as ObamaCare, is a giant step towards government-run healthcare in the United States and, to conservatives, the most hated law in the land.

But law it is, having made its way through Congress and survived a challenge at the Supreme Court. Barack Obama has run for president on the promise of health care reform and won, twice. It is unprecedented for the party in opposition to refuse to fund the government because it objects to a piece of legislation. “This is a matter of saying: ‘give me all your money or I’ll shoot your children and if you don’t, then you will be the murderer,’” said Congressional scholar Tom Mann, of the Brookings Institution.

As a result of the shutdown, 70% of intelligence agency employees have been sent home. “The damage will be insidious,” spy chief James Clapper told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Each day that goes by, the jeopardy increases.” At the National Institutes of Health, children with cancer who had signed up for clinical trials were turned away, along with hundreds of other patients.

Nine million people dependent on the Women, Infants and Children nutrition programme will soon stop receiving food assistance, the Environmental Protection Agency is all but closed and another 1.3 million public employees deemed “essential” are working with no guarantee they will be paid in the near future. Conservative media is making much of the huge number of non-essential workers – as if 95% of the Department of Education’s staff could be laid off and nobody would notice the difference.

“We’ve passed the witching hour of midnight, and the sky didn’t fall,” said Iowa congressman Steve King, a leading member of the Tea Party caucus. “Now the pressure will build on both sides.” Steve Pearce, elected to the House three years ago by one of the most conservative districts in the country, said he could not in good conscience cast a vote to keep the government open: “At times, you must act on principle and not ask what cost.”

On August 21, Congressman Mark Meadows sent an open letter to Boehner urging him to block health care reform by starving the government of money. The letter was signed by seventy-nine other members of the House. This is the core of the Tea Party resistance: eighty Representatives from the South, Midwest and rural Pennsylvania, seventy-nine of them white and seventy-six of them men. In the America they represent, Mitt Romney won the last presidential election in a landslide.

Their constituencies are significantly whiter and somewhat less educated than the average congressional district. Back home, Obama and his health care reform are deeply unpopular. The congressmen believe in their cause and see no reason to negotiate, even if their intransigence imperils national security and takes the USA to the brink of defaulting on its debts. “The Republican establishment made a pact with an extreme populist, radical force,” said Mann. “Now they’re being controlled by that element, and they’re terrified of rejecting them.”

The gerrymandering that helped Republicans retain control of the House despite winning 1.5 million fewer votes than Democrats in 2012 has also deepened ideological polarisation on Capitol Hill. As the only challenge these congressmen need fear is from the right, there is no incentive to compromise. “Being the one who’s the loudest or the most obnoxious gets people running to the computer to donate,” said Shane Larson, Legislative Director for the Communications Workers of America. “It’s financially beneficial to a lot of these politicians to be part of the dysfunction.”

The holdouts are by no means universally popular with their fellow Republicans. Influential conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer dubbed them “the suicide caucus,” for the way in which they are leading the Grand Old Party (GOP) “over a cliff” by shutting down the government. California congressman Devin Nunes, one of the most vocal moderates in the House, went further. “[They are] lemmings with suicide vests,” he said. “They have to be more than just a lemming. Because jumping to your death is not enough.”interior-shutdown2

Many of the leading refuseniks were members of the “birther” movement that questioned whether President Obama was born in the United States. “It’s the most disturbing development in American politics in decades,” said Mann. “One of our two major parties does not accept the legitimacy of the other party. Obama’s not a real American, probably born in Kenya, probably a Muslim, certainly a socialist, as are all the Democrats. The evidence for that is ObamaCare, which was originally a Republican plan for health reform, passed and implemented under Governor Romney in Massachusetts.”

The Affordable Care Act is based on a Heritage Foundation proposal, drawn up as a conservative response to President Clinton’s failed attempt to introduce universal healthcare. The new insurance exchanges, government subsidies and the mandate requiring coverage will cut the number of uninsured Americans by around 30 million, but leave millions more behind. It is a market-based system which has very little in common with our National Health Service.

All previous government shutdowns have centred on spending, but in this case Republicans have already won the budget battle. The resolution passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate to keep the government open did so at “sequestration levels” – accepting the brutal cuts to public services imposed during the last funding impasse as a given. The House rejected this, despite a Quinnipiac poll showing that 72% of Americans oppose shutting down the government to block ObamaCare. Why? “Because we’re right. Simply because we’re right,” King told the New York Times.

Polls consistently show an even split between people opposed to and in favour of the Affordable Care Act, but it is difficult to assess public opinion regarding the law, not least because many of its major provisions only came into effect on Tuesday. A recent CNN poll found only 38% support, but there was an additional 11% who said the health care reform does not go far enough.

The shutdown is merely the latest episode in a long campaign of Republican obstruction. The House has voted to repeal ObamaCare forty-three times. Twenty-six states controlled by Republicans have rejected federal grants to expand Medicaid, which provides healthcare to the very poorest in society, thus denying coverage to around eight million people who earn too much to qualify now but less than Obama’s proposed cut-off of 1.4 times the poverty level: 715,000 cashiers, 420,000 nurses, 308,000 truck drivers, and so on.

Many of the same states are refusing to enforce parts of the law that stipulate insurers must accept people regardless of pre-existing medical conditions and spend at least 80% of their income on providing medical coverage. In Missouri, local officials have been barred from doing anything to help implement the law. “Let me tell what we’re doing,” Georgia’s state insurance commissioner Ralph Hudgens told his fellow Republicans. “Everything in our power to be an obstructionist.”

FreedomWorks, the leading Tea Party organisation, is encouraging young people to “burn their ObamaCare cards,” even though no such cards exist, in the hope that by persuading them to pay a fine rather than get insurance, the pool of insured people will be older, sicker and more expensive to cover, causing the scheme to fail. In television adverts paid for by billionaire libertarians the Koch brothers, a creepy Uncle Sam pops up behind a man about to get a prostate exam and in front of a woman with her legs open on the gynaecologist’s stretcher. The message? “Don’t let government play doctor.”

“All across this country Americans are suffering because of ObamaCare,” began Senator Ted Cruz, kicking off an epic twenty-one hour protest speech on the Senate floor. But on the first day of enrollment, the New York State health exchange logged ten million page views. The federal healthcare portal has been crashing all week, due to a combination of technical glitches and massive demand.

“I think the Republican party leadership are afraid,” said Larson. “They don’t want to give Obama anything that the public might like as time goes on. But I do believe that there is a core of tea partiers who have an extreme ideology that all government is bad.”

There are enough votes in the House to fund the government for six weeks without touching healthcare reform, but Boehner is under extreme pressure from the right not to allow a majority made up of Democrats and moderate Republicans to push a measure through. In private, he has indicated that he will do so to raise the debt ceiling on October 17, but not to resolve the current standoff.

Obama has accused congressional Republicans of demanding “a ransom just for doing their job”. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate, has taken to calling the hardliners “banana Republicans”. The chances of a negotiated settlement appear remote. Meanwhile, the Tea Party is digging in. “We’re not going to be disrespected,” Indiana Congressman Marlin Stutzman told The Washington Examiner. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

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