By Joe Conason
By Washington standards, the current government shutdown is an everyday disaster—of a kind we are gradually learning to expect whenever the Republican Party controls Congress. The impending breach of the nation’s credit, however, when those same Republicans refuse to raise the debt limit to cover the funds they have spent, threatens a singular catastrophe: unpredictable, global, yet entirely avoidable.
The blame for this disgrace seems to be apportioned properly by most Americans, according to the latest polling data. But the future of the country and the world may well rest on whether voters understand the roots of this crisis—in a party controlled by an extremist faction that is violating every public value that party has supposedly espoused for 30 years and more.
Republicans used to tell us, often with a self-righteous air, that they were the true upholders of constitutional order, the rule of law, fiscal probity, personal responsibility, majority rights and market principles. In their unquenchable zeal to oppose President Obama and all his works, they have discarded every one of those ideals.
They have closed down the government, with all the costs and sorrows that has imposed on the American people, in order to save us all from the Affordable Care Act—a law duly passed under the Constitution and declared to be so by a majority of the Supreme Court, including its very conservative chief justice.
(Following that decision, the Republicans spent the next year campaigning to defeat the president on a platform of repealing health care reform—and were soundly defeated by him instead.)
To measure just how grossly the current attempts to obstruct Obamacare violate their supposed devotion to “law and order,” just imagine the Republican reaction if House Democrats had shut down government to force George W. Bush to repeal his beloved tax cuts.
Such hypocrisy is business as usual. But what about the substance of the Republican complaint against health care reform? To anyone aware of the law’s historical context, the fanatical Republican opposition simply seems bizarre. Here, after all, is a market-based system, originally conceived and promoted at the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation as an alternative to Democratic plans for universal coverage. Its fundamental premises are individual responsibility and the power of competition to control costs and stop waste. Its first proven success occurred in a state governed by a Republican business executive—whom they later nominated for president.
Nevertheless, the tea party Republicans remain so determined to eradicate Obamacare that they are willing to jeopardize the economic recovery and the nation’s future prospects. They justify these outrages in the name of the budget, which they insist will be ruined by the costs of subsidizing health care for the country’s uninsured millions. But there is nothing fiscally responsible about shutting down government, an act that costs the U.S. economy at least $300 million each day—not including the additional burdens likely to arise from cancelled food inspections, disease monitoring, flu vaccinations and weather reporting, to mention a few vital services that actually save enormous amounts of money and prevent untold suffering.
Should they continue to foment anarchy by causing a debt default, the ultimate costs are totally unpredictable—except that they will be very large. Even the threat of a shutdown in 2011 caused an immediate slowdown and an increase in unemployment. What will the real thing do? Nobody knows for certain, but the resulting market chaos and economic downturn will cause deeper fiscal problems as well as enormous public pain—at a time when deficits are falling faster than at any time in the past seven decades.
That is why the president and Senate Democrats are right to reject the House leadership’s demand for “negotiations”. Encouraging the destructive strategies of the extremists would convey precisely the wrong message to them and to the world. No doubt many Republicans, appalled at the shame that the tea party has brought upon their once Grand Old Party, are quietly applauding the president’s newfound firmness.
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