Is US Government Shutdown the Price for Freedom?

16:56Ciaran McCormick

The US government has partially shut down. For a while, it was clearly on the brink of having to suspend many of its crucial functions. House Republicans and Senate Democrats were deadlocked on legislation needed to fund federal government. If the shutdown continues, it will impact areas as diverse as 800,000 federal workers, the military and services like the courts and passport service. It has been blamed on the ideological stubbornness of both sides. However, I would like to look beyond the politicians and ask whether facing the risk of a government shutdown is an unfortunate side effect of the US constitutional principles to ensure freedom. The checks and balances in Congress are part of a wider scheme designed to prevent politicians monopolising the various branches government with their agendas.

News outlets are dramatising this particular crisis as the biggest in 17 years, since government shut down last. This overlooks the regularity of these examples of gridlock. The debt ceiling is a good example. This is the limit on the amount of debt that the American government can borrow. It is often used by Republicans to leverage reductions in spending. When the debt ceiling limit is reached, they obstruct attempts to replace it. In 2011, delaying the increase in the amount the US could borrow led to tumbling stock markets and a historic downgrading of the government's credit rating. This current standoff is as much of a reflection on the structure of the American political system as it is the personalities involved.

The Senate has approved a bill that would fund the US government through to November. However, because the whole of the House of Representatives is elected more frequently than the Senate, the Republicans have a majority. They have refused to pass the funding bill through the House. In particular, they have hijacked it. One of the major Republican agendas is to reverse Obamacare. This is the common name for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, which overhauled the country's healthcare system. Republicans have tacked a provision to delay its major components for a year. I believe that much of the rhetoric of government shutdown and the catastrophic impact it would have is political posturing. Barack Obama and the Republicans both want to win public sympathy and frame the other side as going against the will of the people for their own selfish ideological beliefs. It will undoubtedly have a negative economic effect. The damage done to people's livelihoods is devastating.

However, I do not necessarily believe that this type of crisis is a bad thing. The Constitution is designed so that Congress, the President and the Supreme Court all challenge each other. Even in Congress, it is difficult for one faction to seize overwhelming control of both Houses. There are many devices to restrain members, such as filibusters and the importance of committees and their chairs. The ability of Democrats and Republicans to challenge each other is a symptom of that design. Whatever your political persuasion or beliefs on the issues, it means that they cannot impose an agenda without opposition, whether liberal or conservative.

Indeed, it is when the government escapes these constitutional restraints that they often pose a threat to people's freedoms. In foreign policy, the President has slowly stripped away the powers of Congress to declare war. Constructing himself as an all-important Commander-in-Chief, the President now has powers well beyond the original checks and balances. This has led to Obama assassinating US citizens without legal authorisation and the erosion of rights to fair court proceedings. The American security state has been exposed as a behemoth spying on its citizens by whistleblowers. Keeping the government in check is a crucial function of these constitutional provisions. Therefore, nobody wants to see Republicans and Democrats stubbornly fight at the expense of federal workers. Nonetheless, it does serve an important cause for freedom.

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