The more than two-week long government shutdown is over…for now. Most Americans have been left feeling battle-worn and wary of Congress, as the country is still trying to grasp what lead to what has felt like a vocal minority taking the entire government hostage and to the brink of defaulting on our debts. Here is how it happened:
The federal budget bill is the legislation that lays out how the government can spend its funds over the course of the fiscal year, which begins every October 1st with the expectation that a budget will be available to fund the government for that year. Without a budget to operate, the federal government is forced to shutdown.
The last time Congress passed a budget bill was in 2009….yes, you read that correctly—2009. Since then, Congress has passed a series “continuing resolutions” to fund the government for months at a time. These stopgap measures have made the constant threat of a government shutdown every few months the new normal in America.
In relation to this, the debt ceiling sets the limit for how much money the Treasury Department can borrow to cover budget gaps for federal programs like Social Security and Medicaid. Prior to the influx of Tea Party conservatives into Congress, Congress routinely raised the debt ceiling without any issue. The Treasury was set to run out of money and default on its payments on October 17th had the debt bill not been signed.
Less than half of the House and Senate Republicans set the groundwork for a government shutdown in an August 21st letter to House Speaker Boehner urging him to defund the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as part of a short-term bill to fund government operations. This minority of Republicans wanted to use the budget as a leveraging tool. Ignoring strong objections from the White House, on September 20th, the Republican-led House passed a continuing resolution to fund the government until December 15th and defund the Affordable care Act.
The resolution, destined for failure when it came before the Democrat-led Senate, suddenly gave Texas Tea Party Senator Ted Cruz an opportunity to become the face of repealing Obamacare. Yet, three days after Cruz’s 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor, the Senate voted to remove all mention of the Affordable Care Act from the continuing resolution anyway. The revised resolution was sent back to the House.
As the end of the fiscal year and pending government shutdown loomed, the House debated all weekend before sending back a counter-resolution that delayed the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by one year, and repealed the tax on medical devices that helps pay for the healthcare overhaul. That Monday, September 30th, was spent with the Senate and House going back and forth, removing and adding back language related to the Affordable Care Act to the continuing resolution until the clock struck midnight and the government still had no money.
Without the legal authority to spend money on non-essential services, the government shut down and 800,000 government employees were sent home.
In the days that followed, the finger-pointing and photo-ops almost took away from the real issue—the government was essentially broke and only days away from being unable to pay its bill. The government was now essentially no better off than a post-graduate student dodging calls from Sallie Mae. Not only that, no one knew had a clear idea of what it would mean for the U.S. government to default on its bills for the first time in history.
Striking a hard-line straight out of the George W. Bush playbook, President Obama routinely refused to
negotiate with terrorists allow the Tea Party to use the Affordable Care Act as a bargaining tool and asked for a “clean resolution”. As pressure mounted, world leaders warned that the consequences of a default would upset the entire global economy and possible cause another recession, while Tea Party members dug in their heels and saw it as an opportunity to teach the country about fiscal responsibility. Doomsday scenarios seemed inevitable.
And just when all hope was lost and drunk-dialing Congress actually became a viable way to spend your furloughed days, Congress passed a continuing resolution to reopen the federal government and raise the debt limit on Wednesday—only a few hours before the country defaulted. The resolution funds the federal government through Jan. 15, 2014 and lifts the debt limit through Feb. 7, 2014, giving America just enough time to recover before yet another budget crisis grinds the government to a halt in a few months. And by the time President Obama signed the debt bill in to law last night? The 16-day shutdown had cost the government at whopping $24 billion dollars.
France François pens the award-winning Black in Cairo blog. Follow her on Twitter: @FranceF3