1–16 October 2013
Government operations come to a halt as Democrats and Republicans bicker over healthcare, the debt, and ideology.
Back in 2006, elections midway through President George W. Bush’s second term handed a sweeping victory to Democrats—the party won a majority in both houses of Congress, on top of a majority of governorships and state legislatures. Reflecting on what the next couple of years of a divided government would give us, with a Republican in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress, my then-supervisor said, “I hope they’re completely gridlocked.”
In the next election, in 2008, Democrats held on to their majorities in both chambers while winning back the presidency. President Barack Obama, working with House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, pushed through an ambitious legislative agenda, culminating with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a sweeping law that reformed how the nation pays for healthcare.
But there was a price to pay, and Democrats’ total control of the federal government was to be short-lived. In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans retook the House while reducing Democrats’ majority in the Senate. While Mr. Obama was reelected in 2012, the federal government has remained fractured, the wheels of the federal government slowly grinding their way toward complete partisan gridlock.
In the early morning hours of 1 October—the first day of the federal government’s fiscal year 2014—the nation saw what a standstill looks like as Congress failed to pass legislation that would continue funding government operations. Without funding, government agencies could not operate. So they shut down, for 16 straight days, the first such closure since 1996 and the third longest in the nation’s history.
Shuttering federal agencies
For the duration of the shutdown, 800,000 government employees were indefinitely furloughed. Another 1.3 million were required to report to work—many with an additional workload because of the absence of furloughed employees—but didn’t know when they would be paid for their work. Furloughed employees faced a significant loss of income for the time they were out of work.
The operations of federal agencies across the board were suspended or curtailed by the loss of funding. The Federal Housing Administration, NPR reported, continued processing mortgage applications for single-family properties but delayed those for multifamily dwellings. The Department of Commerce’s monthly employment report—closely watched in this time of fragile economic recovery—was delayed. Some 19,000 children were affected by the closure of Head Start programs. Federal websites were replaced with notices that they would be inaccessible for the duration of the shutdown (I encountered one as I was trying to do research on the National Archives’ homepage).
On the other hand, social security recipients continued to receive their benefits, and veterans could continue to receive healthcare administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Indeed, any service deemed essential for the protection of life and property, such as agriculture inspections and police and fire protection, continued to operate.
Perhaps the most visible signs of the government’s closure were in the nation’s capital. The museums of the Smithsonian Institution were closed, as were parks and memorials operated by the National Park Service (NPS). While the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was closed to visitors, staff continued to care for the animals. The expanse of the National Mall was chained off with signs stating that it was closed except for “First Amendment activities.”
The NPS’s closure affected not just parks and monuments in Washington, D.C., but all 401 NPS units across the country. Yosemite and Alcatraz in California, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor, Independence Hall in Philadelphia—all shuttered. Visitors staying overnight in national parks were given 48 hours to leave. National parks are big tourist draws, and closing them doesn’t leave just tourists empty-handed: closures of major sites can impact local economies and tax revenues as well. So several states approached the NPS about reopening the parks during the shutdown using state funds. The NPS said it would allow it, but that parks had to be reopened in whole, not just in part—an awfully pushy demand, we thought, for an agency that, in the absence of federal funding, in effect didn’t exist at the moment. But states agreed, and Utah reopened Zion and Capitol Reef, while neighboring Colorado reopened Rocky Mountain National Park. New York State provided funds to reopen the Statue of Liberty. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to reimburse states that provided funds to reopen national parks.
Because Congress must approve the budgets of the local government of the District of Columbia, federal shutdowns can shutter D.C.’s government, too, closing schools and suspending government services such as garbage collection. To allow local agencies to continue to function, D.C.’s government moved to declare all of its employees “essential”, shielding them from furlough.
Ending the shutdown
The partisan bickering that led to the shutdown centered largely on the Affordable Care Act, much of which went into effect with the new fiscal year on 1 October. Republicans refused to negotiate on the budget until all or part of the ACA was delayed or defunded. They also resisted raising the debt ceiling—the government’s credit card, which was just about maxed out. In the end, after shutting the federal government down for over two weeks as the nation and world looked on at their antics in dismay, the Republicans conceded defeat. On 16 October, the Senate passed a bill—a “continuing resolution”—that extended funding for federal agencies at current levels through 15 January and suspended the debt limit until 7 February 2014 on a vote of 81–18, with all Democrats and 27 Republicans voting in favor. The House then took up the bill and passed it 285–144, with unanimous Democratic support and a vote of 87–144 among Republicans. President Obama signed the bill into law shortly after midnight on 17 October, and later that morning federal workers came into work for the first time that month as agencies reopened their doors.
The closure of the National Mall shuttered the area’s war memorials, too.
On the first day of the shutdown, a large group of World War II veterans participating in an Honor Flight trip from Mississippi to the World War II Memorial ignored the closure and entered the memorial, alongside members of Congress of both political parties. The NPS declared that the gathering was protected by the First Amendment and rangers allowed the veterans to enter.
While visiting the memorial on 2 October, Representative Randy Neugebauer, a Republican from Texas, publicly scolded a National Park Service ranger who was enforcing the agency’s closure. As ordered by their superiors, the park rangers on duty at the memorial had been allowing World War II veterans into the site but asking the general public to leave. A video recording taken by an NBC journalist showed Mr. Neugebauer angrily challenging the unidentified ranger, asking her, “How can you look at them … and deny them access?” When she replied that it was “difficult,” the congressman added that the “Park Service should be ashamed of themselves.” The ranger responded, “I’m not ashamed,” to which the congressman shot back, “Well, you should be.”
Mr. Neugebauer’s actions were widely criticized in major media, though he said his words were taken out of context. The Kansas City Star editorialized that Mr. Neugebauer was “full of misplaced moral outrage” and was wrong to attack the ranger publicly—“a public servant, handling a bad situation with much more professionalism than the self-important Neugebauer displayed,” and an ethics complaint was proposed by a congressional watchdog group. David McCumber, the Washington bureau chief of Hearst Newspapers, said Mr. Neugebauer had shown “staggering hypocrisy” in attacking a ranger for enforcing the closure the congressman had helped create.*
Information and some portions of text adapted from these pages at en.wikipedia.org/wiki (CC BY-SA 3.0):
* Text adapted from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_government_shutdown_of_2013 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
This article appeared on pages 14–15 of Issue 12 | October 2013.