1 Oct 2013

How many does it take to shut down the US government?

Federal government shuts and an even more crucial moment for US politics looms on the horizon. So just how much will the Republican Tea Party renegades risk to block “Obamacare”?

Turns out it only needs about 50. That’s how many Tea Party Republicans have conspired to close down the American federal government.

Called anarchists by their Democratic opponents – even their own side describe them as extremists. Politicians who are prepared to do whatever it takes – from reading out children’s bedtime stories on the floor of the Senate, to potentially forcing the US government to default on its debts – to try to stop the introduction of “Obamacare”, or the affordable care act, as it is actually called.

The president is refusing to negotiate with them, and their own leadership can’t control them. So today they shut down the US government.

Museums and national parks are closed. No passports, visas or driving licences will be issued. Hundreds of thousands of non-essential federal government employees won’t go to work. 97 per cent of Nasa is closed. The civilian staff who support the vast US military wont get paid.

Signature reforms

What’s the ultimate symbol of this colossal failure of politics? The American system of government is now so dysfunctional that the Statue of Liberty is closed.

And it’s all because 50 Tea Party Republicans don’t like Obama’s healthcare reforms.

Back in 2009 Republicans promised to turn the president’s signature healthcare reforms into “Obama’s Waterloo”. But despite their best efforts, and considerable public opposition, the bill passed through both houses of congress and became law in 2010.

It starts to take effect on Tuesday as some of the 48 million Americans who have no health insurance are able to sign up for affordable coverage.

It is not really a radical change to the system. It is certainly not the beginning of an American NHS. But Republicans believe it is introducing some kind of creeping communism into their market-driven medical system and are determined to stop it. By whatever means necessary.

Potential damage”Obamacare” isn’t that popular with American voters. Most say they would be happier to leave the system as it is. But they really don’t like the extreme measures Obama’s opponents are taking to try and stop its introduction.

The senior (sane) leadership of the Republican party know this is potentially far more damaging to them than it is to the Democrats. The last time the federal government was shut down was in 1995 /96, when Newt Gingrich stared down President Bill Clinton.

The end result was a resounding victory for Clinton at the polls later that year. Gingrich later admitted it was terrible mistake. And it looks like the Republicans are about to make the same mistake all over again.

Federal government shutdown in the US (picture: Getty)

Polarised politics

This debacle tells you a lot about the American system of government and the state it’s in today. How the bitter and polarised politics that have dominated Washington ever since Obama was first elected can cause total gridlock. How a handful of ideologues can use guerrilla tactics to cause chaos.

Even the Republican leadership don’t want to close the federal government. They know they will pay a high price for this at the 2014 mid-term elections. But even they can’t stop the Tea Party renegades who will do anything to try to overturn a law they don’t like.

Economists estimate that the government shutdown will cost the country about $1bn a week. It won’t have to go on for long to be very damaging to the US economy.

But there is worse to come. By 17 October the congress has to agree to lift the debt ceiling or the US could start to default on its debts and then we will be looking at economic carnage.

So the multi-billion dollar question is, just how much are Republicans prepared to risk to try and derail the president’s healthcare reforms?