“Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis,” said Chaplain Barry Black Sept. 27 as he led the Senate in its daily morning prayer. Mired in a level of political dysfunction not seen for decades, divine intervention looked like the ruling class’ best shot at avoiding a government shutdown, which finally began Oct. 1 after a frenzy of posturing and factional maneuvering.
Since it regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010, the Republican Party has largely followed an obstructionist strategy, focusing on preventing the implementation of Democrats’ policy objectives but recognizing that they are not in a position to advance their own agenda. Basic functions of the capitalist legislature that had previously been a matter of course—funding the government and allowing it to borrow money—have now been turned into pressure points to leverage a greater say on national policy for the right wing.
The U.S. government has been operating under a fiscal regime called “sequestration” since the “fiscal cliff” crisis that dominated headlines in late 2012. Under sequestration, vital social services relied on by poor and working people are subject to devastating austerity, forced to operate with a much smaller budget that has led to greatly restricted access in many cases. The sequester was in theory temporary and would only remain in place until a more rational plan could be worked out. In March, Congress passed a “continuing resolution” that extended the sequestration budget through Sept. 30.
The CR was timed so that it would expire the day before the most important parts of the Affordable Care Act— “Obamacare”—were due to take effect. The Tea Party, the most reactionary wing of the Republican Party, insisted that the expiration of the continuing resolution be used to defund and effectively repeal the ACA. The new healthcare law is a massive payday for insurance companies, but also includes some progressive elements that make it easier for working people to access medical treatment.
On Sept. 20, the House of Representatives passed another CR that included a provision to scrap the Affordable Care Act. This was rejected by the Democrat-controlled Senate, which in return passed a “clean” CR that kept in place the sequester cuts with no modifications to the ACA. The House rejected this and passed another CR with a series of additional reactionary proposals, which was also rejected by the Senate. The Republican Party’s bluff was called, and a shutdown began as federal agencies found themselves without a budget.
Throughout the political deadlock, the Democratic Party and President Obama have refused to negotiate, arguing that Republicans should not be able to extract concessions by threatening to not carry out their most basic responsibilities as legislators. All major polls showed that Republicans would shoulder most of the blame for a government shutdown in the eyes of the public, so Democrats are perfectly content to allow their rivals to pursue a suicidal strategy as long as they want. If people suffer for a prolonged period, liberal strategists gleefully reason, it might even be enough to win the mid-term elections!
What a shutdown means for the working class
The shutdown does not mean that all government operations immediately cease—only those that are deemed “non-essential”. Not surprisingly, the functions beneficial to poor and working people make up the bulk of the suspended programs.
Women, Infants and Children, a service that provides health and nutritional assistance to impoverished mothers and their children, will run out of money in roughly one week. Public housing vouchers are not being funded, and new applications for Social Security are not being processed. Research conducted by the National Institute for Health and the Center for Disease control’s flu shot program have been put on hold. The Veterans Administration will stop disbursing education and rehabilitation benefits.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have stopped regulating big business. Wall Street’s derivative speculation will similarly go without government oversight.
Some 800,000 federal employees have been “furloughed” —forced off the job without pay—for the duration of the shutdown. Federal workers have already been subjected to a pay freeze since 2010. In the second quarter of this year, personal incomes rose on average by 1 percent, but federal government workers saw their earnings drop by 0.8 percent.
The Congressional shoe shining service and gourmet cafeteria will shut its doors. Shared sacrifice!
The numbers of workers in each government agency classified as essential and non-essential provide a revealing look into the true priorities of the ruling class. Ninety-five percent of employees at the Department of Education, 52 percent at the Department of Health and Human Services, 45 percent at the Food and Drug Administration and 96 percent at the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been deemed non-essential.
However, 88 percent of Customs and Borders Protection—the parent organization of the murderous U.S. Border Patrol—will remain on the job, as will 85 percent of employees at the Department of “Justice.” Department of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale assured that a war against Syria during the shutdown “would be a military operation approved by the secretary [of Defense], and so it would be an excepted activity and, yes, we could go forward with it.” The impending shutdown did not stop the Pentagon from approving a billion-dollar deal to provide missiles to the United Arab Emirates—a strategically important U.S. client regime ruled by a despotic monarchy—just one week before the continuing resolution expired.
Capitalist state increasingly dysfunctional
Corporate media outlets have tried to steer mass outrage at the government shutdown into harmless channels. Editorials commonly lament the inability of politicians to “get along” and accuse them of acting like “spoiled children.” But in reality, the current political deadlock is the result of complex factionalism rooted in the global crisis of capitalism—not the personal traits of a handful of powerful individuals.
The government shutdown has exposed deep rifts inside the Republican Party. It is widely believed that Speaker of the House John Boehner, a long-time establishment Republican, did not want to pursue the strategy of leveraging a shutdown to defund the ACA. However, a hard core of Tea Party Representatives and groups like Heritage Action had pulled enough of the Republican caucus into their orbit that Boehner had little choice.
The Tea Party was an important part of the capitalist class’s immediate response to the economic crisis. While bailouts and “quantitative easing” stabilized their economy, the Tea Party protected their political system by discouraging a united class struggle against the bankers and CEOs.
Tea Party leaders emphasize their “outsider” and working class roots. Tom Graves, the Republican Representative from Georgia who first proposed threatening to shut down the government in order to defund the Affordable Care Act, claims that he grew up “in a single-wide trailer on a tar and gravel road.” By doing so, they hope to build false unity with white workers and the petty-bourgeoisie—who have seen their standard of living diminish rapidly—on the basis of white supremacy in order to deflect white participation in the class struggle. In addition to virulent racism, Tea Party politicians are also responsible for some of the most appallingly sexist policies and statements of the last few years.
The mobilization of newly-proletarianized elements of society in a pseudo-mass movement with an extreme reactionary program during a period of crisis is one of the essential characteristics of fascism. Fascist and semi-fascist forces are often necessary for the survival of the capitalist system, but become uncontrollable after they perform their function. To use an extreme example, most of the imperialist powers with liberal parliamentary systems of government supported the Nazi party when it first came to power, but later had to go to war against them when their wildly aggressive military ambitions outweighed their usefulness as a buffer against the Soviet Union.
The disunity in the Republican Party boiled over in public in recent days. In a nearly unheard-of move, Senator Bob Corker denounced fellow Republican Ted Cruz from the floor of the Senate when Cruz was carrying out a filibuster to delay the rejection of the House of Representatives’ version of a continuing resolution. During the first day of the shutdown, 12 Republican Representatives publically stated that they would vote in favor of the Senate Democrats’ CR.
This constant deadlock has begun to erode the legitimacy of the capitalist state in the eyes of large numbers of people. When asked in an opinion poll taken in May by CNN how much confidence they have in “our system of government,” 43 percent of respondents said “only a little” or “none at all.” Another poll taken between Sept. 27 and 29 found that Congress had a 10 percent approval rating. The Tea Party has played an important role in defending the status quo, but it has now started to have the opposite effect.
Working people have no friends on Capitol Hill
It is a great irony that the supposedly highly-controversial sequester has become a virtual non-issue in this latest fight over the federal budget. The Democratic Party’s starting bargaining position is now to simply continue the sequester cuts that they supposedly deeply opposed. All the vague talk about more taxes on the rich, corporations or financial transactions have melted away as liberals now focus on pleading with the Republicans to let them go on imposing devastating austerity without further modifications.
The Democratic Party is not pushing any alternative plan for federal government services—much less mobilizing their considerable base to support one—because they are perfectly content with the status quo. The Republicans are taking all the public heat, so Democrats are becoming more popular while they finish gutting the social programs they began to destroy during the Clinton administration.
But for the mothers and children who are going hungry, the furloughed workers, the communities exposed to environmental devastation and many, many others, the current state of affairs is unacceptable. With the right amount of courage, determination and discipline, poor and working people can force a very different kind of government shutdown—and reopen it under new management.