Alexandra DeSanctis, Staff Writer

Democrats, Republicans navigate first shutdown since 1996

Living in South Bend, it may not be immediately evident that the federal government has been shut down since October 1.  But to 800,000 “non-essential” federal employees, the month of October has seen a few unpleasant changes brought on by the gridlock within the US Congress.

The divisive nature of American politics has become all too evident over the past few weeks as the nation has watched the federal government battle over the debt limit.  This stark disunion between political parties and congressional leaders culminated last week in the shutdown of the federal government.  When Congress failed to pass a continuing resolution on September 30, the government lacked an agreement on spending allotment and was forced into its first shutdown since 1996.

Congress’ main responsibility, as outlined in the Constitution, is to pass spending bills and fund the government.  The federal fiscal year runs from October 1 to September 30; the October 1 deadline was simply the date by which Congress had to agree upon the apportionment of its spending for its next fiscal year.

This seems like a simple enough job—to outline for the government where its money will go in the upcoming year.  So what was the problem?  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: the so-called “Obamacare” law.  This signature legislation of the Obama administration might seem to be irrelevant to government spending plans, but congressional Republicans have argued that the law is harming American citizens, businesses and the economy.  The tension within Congress has stemmed mainly from a dispute over the future of the healthcare legislation.

Most recent opinion polls indicate that an average of about 51 percent of people disapprove of Obamacare, as opposed to 40 percent who approve of the law.  According to a Fox News poll from October 3, conducted after the government shutdown began, 54 percent of voters support repealing some or all of Obamacare, while 57 percent support delaying the law’s enactment for at least a year.

Leading up to the deadline to pass the continuing resolution, Republicans in Congress were insistent upon either defunding or delaying parts of Obamacare in accordance with the views of the people.  With the majority in the House, Republicans passed two amendments to the House version of the spending bill: one to delay the individual mandate of Obamacare for a year, and the other to repeal the medical device tax section of the law.

Republicans argue that the president’s unilateral decision to delay the employer mandate on businesses for a year is unfair to citizens, and that it would only be right to delay the individual mandate in the same manner for at least a year.  Additionally, they believe that Obamacare’s medical device tax would send jobs overseas and hurt the American economy.  The Democrats in Congress—primarily the Senate—have refused to consider amending the Affordable Care Act in any way, stymieing attempts to reconcile the two parties’ perspectives.

It was this irreconcilable divide that led to the shutdown, and that continues to prevent Congress from producing a bipartisan, continuing resolution to fund the government this coming year.  Since the shutdown began over a week ago, little progress has been made to bridge the gap between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate.  House Republicans continue to demand that all spending bills either delay or defund Obamacare, while Senate Democrats insist that no legislation will be passed if it touches the president’s healthcare law.

Professor Patrick Deneen of the Political Science Department offered his thoughts about the current state of division between and within political parties.

“Many analysts have been right to note that there is a ‘civil war’ going on inside the Republican party,” he stated, “with an insurgent group of legislators taking a more hard-line stand not only against the Democrats, but also the leadership of their own party.”

The only compromise in sight is the general agreement on a House bill that will give back-pay to all federal workers furloughed by the shutdown.  The White House has signaled support for this legislation and it is expected to be approved by the Senate and signed into law shortly.

Government shutdown has not led to compromise, as some may have expected, but instead has polarized leadership even further.  Obama targeted House Republicans directly in his weekly address on Saturday, ordering, “Stop this farce. End this shutdown now.”  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Senate Democrats share this attitude and have resisted all efforts to reopen the government and refused to vote on multiple House bills.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, Ohio Republican, shot back at Democratic leadership on Sunday, declaring that the House will not pass any bills to reopen the government or raise the debt ceiling until Obama agrees to talk to Republican leadership.  “The President just can’t sit there and say ‘I’m not going to negotiate,’” Boehner stated.  Conservative Republicans in both the House and Senate share this point of view for the most part, refusing to pass a “clean” continuing resolution without amending parts of Obamacare.

The mainstream media has largely blamed the shutdown on House Republicans, portraying the gridlock as a result of ideological conservatives intent on getting their own way.  Voters, however, are largely split on the issue of who deserves the blame.  Twenty-five percent of Americans surveyed by Fox News on October 3 believe Republican leaders such as Boehner deserve the blame, while an almost equal 24% blame the president.  About 20% of Americans believe that all of the federal government—Democrats and Republicans equally—share the responsibility for the shutdown.

Regardless of public opinion, it remains clear that Congress must find some path to compromise in order to restore normalcy to the government and to bring 800,000 furloughed federal employees back to work.  The gaping red-blue disharmony across the country has made itself manifest in the partisan split of Congress, a division that shows no signs of impending reparation.

Alexandra DeSanctis is finally an official Political Science major with a minor in Constitutional Studies, and she loves considering hypothetical questions.  If you have any, email her at