The last time the U.S. federal government shut down, in 1995, I was a senior officer in our embassy in Warsaw. Because of the deadlock in Washington, we were unable to pay our Polish employees, many of whom had worked for us even in the dark days of the Cold War, when any association with what communist authorities considered a “hostile embassy” posed serious risks for Polish staffers and their families.
Because our government could not meet its obligations, American officers chipped in their own funds for loans to help our Polish colleagues make ends meet until the contending sides finally came together in Washington and the manufactured crisis passed. The episode was a “low dishonest” moment, to borrow a phrase from W.H. Auden’s poem, “Sept. 1, 1939,” about the decade leading up to that day’s Nazi invasion of Poland.
We’re in another such dismal moment now as our federal government closes doors yet again. Those who hate our national government, or consider it the problem rather than part of the solution, may cheer this news and shed no tears for the million or so American civil servants who will lose their livelihood as a result. After all, the Tea Party has taught us that federal “bureaucrats” are the enemy, even though they are merely carrying out the laws and programs that Congress in its wisdom authorizes.
The failure of Congress to pass a budget and raise our debt ceiling – to pay for the laws it enacts – will hurt individuals, institutions and our country in countless ways, large and small. Some we’ll notice immediately – closure of our national parks, for example – while others will escape our attention until their effects come back to haunt us. How to calculate the impact of children going hungry, of new drugs being introduced without proper vetting, of banks unwatched by qualified regulators? Of roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure allowed to decay?
Collateral damage from the spectacle in Washington will also include a growing reluctance of our most talented young men and women to enter public life. Who wants to serve in a Congress whose approval ratings are in the cellar or join a civil service where pay is frozen and vilification by politicians playing to the grandstand for cheap votes commonplace?
Our repeated claims of American “exceptionalism” and the right to lead will have little resonance with Germans, Chinese, Brazilians, Russians and others observing our inability to keep our government operating, pay our debts, and provide basic services like health care to our citizens.
It’s that latter, of course, that has been the sticking point in the current impasse in Washington. Obamacare, as it is called, has been the red line for the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives. Its militants have vehemently fomented opposition to the plan all along the way, even after it became law and was judged constitutional by the Supreme Court. What they have not done is offer any viable alternative way to achieve what Obamacare strives to do: reduce health-care costs and extend coverage to the millions who have until now been left out in the cold.
At their political convention in St. Paul in 2008, Republicans met under the motto, “country first.” It was a stirring theme, but what we have gotten from them during the Obama years instead has been mostly rank partisanship, just as Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell forecast when he said his primary goal was not governing but making Obama a one-term president.
Having sowed lots of uncertainly and misinformation about the president’s plan but still lost the legislative battles — and the 2012 presidential election — Republicans now want to shut down everything unless or until they can gut Obamacare. Some might portray this as a principled campaign, but to some of us the tactic seems more like the tyranny of the minority.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who lives in Plymouth.
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