The government shut down on Tuesday after Congress failed to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year. Lawmakers wrangled over funding for President Barack Obama's signature health care plan, with House Republicans seeking to defund the program as Democrats in both chambers worked to defend it. The shutdown could cost billions and affects federal jobs, agencies and programs. Holding the nation hostage for political gains is not only irresponsible but also crippling for the democratic process as a whole.
To understand why the government shut down, we have first to consider the opposing views on Obamacare. Legislators on the left argue that the health care law will improve access to services and rein in the rising cost of insurance coverage. Lawmakers on the right, however, cite the law as a prime example of federal overreach and fear that forcing employers to provide health insurance to employees will cripple businesses. A minority of conservative lawmakers believe that the lasting damage of Obamacare outweighs any effects of temporarily incapacitating the government.
We disagree. There are some circumstances in which a law poses a sufficiently serious threat to human rights or social stability to justify shuttering the government—a law doing away with the right to free speech, for example. The impacts of Obamacare come nowhere close to this red line.
A Moody Analytics report estimates that a three to four week shutdown could cost the country $55 billion. Until the impasse is resolved, at least 800,000 “non-essential” government employees will be furloughed; millions of other workers will be asked to work without pay, and national parks and museums will remain closed. The potential costs of Obamacare do not outweigh the real and severe impacts to people’s livelihoods that accompany a government shutdown.
Furthermore, the shutdown erodes faith in the legislative process. Republican lawmakers have used the federal budget as a bargaining chip to achieve political ends; they have abandoned their responsibilities to the people, and they have disregarded a law that has already been approved by Congress and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Are these not grounds on which to question our government’s credibility? Once cracked, the people’s confidence and faith in their government becomes increasingly difficult to mend.
Some may argue that the impasse does not undermine the government but rather showcases the realities of representative democracy. They claim that representatives voted into office on promises to stymie Obamacare are now dutifully defending the interests of their constituents. If this is the case, however, it reveals a deeper issue: congressional politics has become a zero-sum game in which lawmakers feel the need to stake out a position at the fringes of their party to get elected.
Though on a relatively small scale, tremors of the government shutdown are reaching Duke’s campus. Although financial aid will remain untouched, students applying for government jobs will be put on hold, and researchers can expect roadblocks to grant applications. As an institution heavily dependent on federal research funding—in 2010, about $500 of Duke’s $983 million total research funds came from the government—the University could feel the effects of a long-term shutdown.
With the debt-ceiling crisis looming in just two short weeks, lawmakers should step back from the brink and reconcile their disagreements.