The federal government shutdown, now two weeks under way, has resulted in near-disastrous consequences for the country.
Research in Antarctica is slowing to a halt, perhaps causing irreparable damage to invaluable scientific work on climate issues. Services and benefits for veterans are being cut, leaving veterans with no access to regional VA centers. Until a widespread salmonella outbreak became public knowledge, there was only one person responsible for tracking all domestic foodborne illnesses — the rest had been furloughed. While higher education has yet to be hit as hard as other sectors, college campuses will show greater signs of strain as the shutdown prolongs.
Important research tools such as federal libraries and data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau are available with limited access, if any. Grant deadlines for research projects may be pushed back, and some may be scrapped altogether. For a campus such as UC Berkeley that’s especially reliant on academic and scientific research, these effects of the shutdown are particularly damaging. Students should be angry that Congressional Republicans are wasting our time and resources to score worthless political points.
How did it come to this? How could our government close due to the demands of a minority within Congress, and how could this same minority potentially force a worldwide recession with the debt-ceiling deadline looming?
Let’s be frank: It’s the Republicans’ fault.
In the days leading up to the government shutdown, the Republicans in the House of Representatives worked themselves up into a frenzy. The Oct. 1 deadline for Congress to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded approached quickly.
Conservative activists mobilized, seizing this as their opportunity to defund Obamacare. These activists and their allies argued for attaching an amendment defunding the Affordable Care Act to any continuing resolution that would fund the government. The Republicans didn’t have the votes to get such a resolution through the Senate, and President Obama, as he had all along, made it clear he would veto any legislation that defunded the Affordable Care Act.
And even though 28 Republican representatives have stated publicly that they would vote for a “clean” continuing resolution — one with no amendments — Republicans on the House Rules Committee made that impossible. Just before the shutdown, they passed a rule change that prevents anyone other than the House majority leader, Republican Eric Cantor, from introducing a bill to fund the government. Simply put, these Republicans are interested in winning political victories to achieve substantive policy changes by holding the government hostage.
And while a government shutdown may have deeply felt economic and research consequences for the country, hitting the debt limit on Oct. 17 would bring on a complete global catastrophe.
Oct. 17 is a date far more important than the Oct. 1 deadline. If Congress doesn’t vote to raise the amount the Treasury is authorized to borrow in order to service the debts of the U.S. government, we will hit the “debt ceiling.” A relic of a time when Congress used a different budgeting process, the debt ceiling was never used to force major policy concessions until the Republicans used it for expressly that purpose in 2011. If we fail to raise the debt ceiling, the choice won’t do anything to curb our spending; raising the debt ceiling only enables us to pay the bills on things we’ve already spent money on, which are ostensibly decided through congressional budget negotiations.
As it stands, many Republicans in Congress have an incentive to behave like the so-called “suicide caucus.” Many come from rural, overwhelmingly white districts that wield outsized electoral power, and these districts will proudly re-elect their representatives for taking a courageous stand against corrupt liberal boogeymen. Many GOP members of Congress fear they will lose primary challenges to Republicans who are even more conservative than themselves, fueling a never-ending run to the extreme right wing of American politics. In essence, when we say that we’re fed up with broken “politics,” what we’re really frustrated with is the broken system that keeps handing power to a minority with an extreme conservative viewpoint. And it’s this minority that’s dragged us into the whole mess.
If the shutdown continues unabated through the end of the month, two national laboratories in the Bay Area will be forced to furlough their employees. While the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is safe because of contracts that fund the lab through the end of the year, research dollars could dry up eventually. This money and other research funds like it are a key part of the campus’s operations. When they disappear, Berkeley will feel the hurt.