Democracy at work

Democracy at work

The U.S. government has been shut down for 10 days now as the Republican-led House of Representatives, one of the two houses of the U.S. Congress, failed to agree on the Federal Budget on Oct. 1. The shutting down of all non-essential federal services left approximately 800,000 employees on unpaid leave that still costs around $300 million every day. The gridlock emerged with the Republicans demanding to repeal, defund or delay Obama’s healthcare reform, nicknamed “Obamacare,” which was enacted in 2010 amid heavy Republican opposition and was upheld by the Supreme Court on June 28, 2012.

Behind the gridlock, Democrats argue that the healthcare law championed by President Barack Obama will allow millions of Americans to get access to health insurance while Republicans rail against what they contend is a dangerous expansion of government. What is more, Obama has insisted since 2011 that only Congress has the constitutional authority to authorize borrowing backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. Some legal experts disagree, as does House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Yet, this is not the way Obama wants to go for political reasons, while Republicans are understandably trying to push him into that corner.

This is not the first government shutdown in U.S. history. The practice started in 1976 with the Gerald Ford administration’s shutdown for 10 days. During that first shutdown, many federal agencies continued to operate, while minimizing all non-essential operations, believing that Congress did not really intend to close down government agencies. Yet in 1980 and 1981, the Attorney General at the time issued two opinions, more strictly defining the shutdown, with its exceptions. As a result, exceptions today are allowed only when there is a reasonable connection between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property.

This may sound strange for the countries under the parliamentary system, where the executive and legislative branches are not separable in practice, though separate in theory, as the government is formed by the majority party in the Parliament. Yet, this is how the system of checks and balances, the bedrock of healthy democracies, works in the U.S. Under the separation of powers created by the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the sole power to appropriate government funds. This constitutional right gives the legislative branch the ability to control or push for changes to government policies. If the president’s party does not have the majority in both houses of Congress, the process might be rather acrimonious. 

In the current debacle, hardline conservative Republicans, some of who are also members of the Tea Party, are hoping to get concessions by linking healthcare issue with the shutdown. However, it is a very risky game, as nobody knows when and how the current deadlock will end. What is more threatening at the moment is that should there be no deal by Oct. 17, the government will exhaust its legal borrowing capacity and run out of money. Then the U.S. government will start defaulting on its debts, thus hurting not only the U.S. economy but also the global financial system.

Moreover, failure to agree on a debt ceiling will also affect U.S. foreign policy. President Obama has already canceled visits to Asia where he was set to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Indonesia, and the ASEAN Summit in Brunei. Even though he wants to concentrate on the Asia-Pacific in his second term, the circumstances do not fit his wishes.

Such constraints and the consequences will eventually force both the president and the Republicans to compromise. After all, negotiation and compromise are fundamentals of the democracies. Or at least Americans seem to think so.