If it wanted to, the House Republican majority could immediately end the government shutdown it has caused. While Americans wait, over 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed; millions more are working without pay; vital services, programs, facilities, parks and monuments have been suspended or closed; intelligence and law enforcement agencies are understaffed; communities where federal facilities are located and the tens of thousands of small businesses with federal contracts and the hundreds of thousands of workers they collectively employ are being hurt. Some of these businesses may not recover.
Constituents ask: How much longer is the shutdown going to affect me? Why did things come to this and who’s responsible for this mess? What needs to be done to reopen the government?
We’ve reached this impasse because of the total war Tea Party Republicans in Congress are waging on the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, it’s hard to tell whether it’s just that they don’t like the ACA or all things Obama.
Republicans are a 234-201 majority in the House. Democrats are a 54-46 majority in the Senate. The 49 members of the House Tea Party Caucus account for only 20 percent of all House Republicans. The five members of the Senate Tea Party Caucus make up just 10 percent of Republican senators. Nonetheless, these minorities have cowed their GOP colleagues into going on the impossible mission of undoing the historic healthcare reform that Congress and President Obama enacted three years ago; that already has three years of implementation under its belt; that the Supreme Court ruled constitutional 16 months ago; and that voters affirmed 11 months ago by re-electing President Obama by five million votes and a 332-206 landslide victory in the Electoral College against a Republican who pledged to repeal “Obamacare.” Yet, the Tea Party still wants repeal of the law that is finally making affordable, quality healthcare insurance accessible to tens of millions of Americans regardless of pre-existing conditions, age or employment status.
During my 15 years in Congress, members, whether Democrat or Republican, addressed a law they didn’t like by fulfilling their legislative oversight responsibility to monitor that law’s impact or by seeking to negotiate adjustments they thought would improve the law. Not so with Congressional Tea Party Republicans. They’ve bullied the House Republican leadership and bulldozed a majority of the Republican conference into incorporating their ideological objections to Obamacare into the continuing resolution that would otherwise simply fund the government for a period of time while the House and Senate, Congress and the White House, Democrats and Republicans, work out their differences on the budget for the 2014 fiscal year.
Again and again, the president said he is willing to discuss any Republican proposal designed to improve the Affordable Care Act. The fact is the ACA itself is an example of what can happen when both sides listen to each other. It is modeled after the Massachusetts healthcare program proposed by a Republican governor and authored by a Republican think tank. The ACA includes over 160 proposals Republicans made in committee.
If the president and Congressional Democrats give in to the hostage taking and extortion tactics of Tea Party Republicans in this instance there is absolutely no doubt that they would use the debt limit negotiations a week from now or next year’s budget process to dismantle other laws and programs they don’t like, namely Social Security and Medicare. We cannot allow a small faction of our government to wreak such havoc on our nation. The long-term ramifications of this kind of brinksmanship are grave. We have already had a taste of the consequences.
So, here we are. The shame of it is that there are enough votes in the House to pass a CR with no conditions attached. Until the Obama presidency, enacting clean CRs was the norm. Congress has done so 45 times since Ronald Reagan was president. John Boehner has voted for a clean CR numerous times. The federal government had been operating under a clean CR all year long.
Last week, 200 House Democrats sent Speaker Boehner a letter calling for floor vote on a clean CR. Over 20 House Republicans have said they would vote yes. Together these are enough votes for passage. Given the majority Democratic Senate, Congress could quickly enact it and the president just as quickly sign it into law. The government could be fully reopened. All federal employees could return to work with all agencies, services, programs, national parks and monuments resuming operation. Plus, a bipartisan predicate will have been laid for raising the debt limit and preventing a default without another deliberately engineered crisis. I hope House leadership will soon put our country’s economic stability above its party politics; that’s what I’m fighting for until this is resolved. We should all be.
Gregory Meeks is U.S. Congressman for the 5th District, in Southeast Queens and southwestern Nassau County.