Like the countdown on New Year’s Eve, the nation waited on Monday night to find out whether the government would shut down at midnight—and shut down it did.
For the first time in 17 years, a nasty impasse between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress over a spending bill to extend government funding brought many government services to a halt on Tuesday morning.
The GOP-controlled House and the Democrat-led Senate tossed the bill back and forth like a nasty game of volleyball for over a week, spiking their agendas at one another, hoping for agreement. At issue was the House’s desire to pass legislation that would delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” by one year. The legislation aims to increase the quality and affordability of health insurance, lower the uninsured rate by expanding public and private insurance coverage, and reduce the costs of healthcare for individuals and the government through mandates, subsidies and insurance exchanges.
Despite agreeing to the House’s proposed $986 billion budget, which would have begun on Tuesday and lasted until December 15, the Democrats on Friday rejected the entire bill, which included the House’s addendum to halt Obamacare and eliminate subsidies for Congressional staffers buying healthcare in the new exchanges, or insurance marketplaces, which went live on Tuesday.
Once again on Monday night, the Senate voted to strip the healthcare language from the bill and sent it back to the House, which chose not to budge on its addendum, except to appoint eight Republican members to participate in a budget conference with the Senate.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said in a speech that night that the Senate would not “go to conference with a gun to our heads,” and on Tuesday, the Senate rejected the House proposal to start conference committee negotiations. The next step remains uncertain.
On Monday, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop, a Democrat from Southampton, used similar language, saying that the Republicans are “holding the government hostage.”
“What they are trying to do is damage to the greatest extent possible a law they consider to be bad public policy,” he said. “To delay for a year a law that’s going to help people … and has already helped people—that’s not a bargain, that’s extortion.”
According to Mr. Bishop, both chambers of Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 before it was signed into law and ratified as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. He said it doesn’t make sense that Republicans would do this now.
“The effort to delay the implementation of a law by those who have lost at every other stage of this law, I think, imperils our constitutional process,” Mr. Bishop said. “If we can pass laws and the minority of Congress can threaten a shutdown not to impose a duly passed and vetted law, I think that calls into question the entire democratic process. It’s very dangerous.”
He said there is nothing left for Democrats to compromise on since they have already accepted the Republicans’ $986 billion figure.
But Ian Prior, the spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Democrats’ unyielding attitude has caused the shutdown.
“Ultimately, this shutdown is a result of the president’s and congressional Democrats’ unwillingness to work with Republicans,” he said on Tuesday. “When he passed Obamacare, the president shut Republicans out of the process and rammed the bill through Congress with no bipartisan support. Every law that has stood the test of time has had support from both parties—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Social Security, Medicare. That is the way the country should work. And what we now see throughout the country is that Obamacare is not popular, it is preventing economic growth, it is not ready for prime time, and people want to see it repealed, reformed or at least delayed.”
He added that each time the House of Representatives has passed continuing resolutions, like that proposed to continue to fund the government, while either delaying or making changes to the president’s law, they always had Democratic support.
“Despite that, however, President Obama and Harry Reid refuse to take anything less than 100 percent of what they think is best for America, and they have refused to even have a discussion with Republicans about finding a middle ground for funding the government at a responsible level.”
In the meantime, things will be different for Americans as they wait for Congress to make nice. Approximately 800,000 federal employees will be in limbo, which could cost the economy about $1 billion a week, reportedly.
Mr. Bishop said things aren’t going to be so easy.
“So much of what we take for granted will become difficult,” he said on Monday. “Social Security checks will continue to be mailed out but the Social Security regional office will be open but on a skeletal staff. Ninety percent of their staff are going to be told not to return. New cases and help with existing cases will stop. The Small Business Administration, which processes $1 billion in loans a month to help small businesses, that will all stop. We constantly hear from the Republicans that small business is the backbone of the economy—well, here’s a dagger in the heart of small business.”
According to CNN.com, which has a list of government agencies and their status, the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, the Department of Transportation and NASA are partially closed, as much of their staffs have been furloughed. The U.S. court system could run for 10 days on available funds.
Mr. Bishop said the National Institutes of Health and parts of Brookhaven Laboratory are closed. He added that the military will continue to work, and will be paid thanks to a legislative agreement between the House and the Senate.
Some programs and government offices will remain open during the shutdown because they rely on mandatory spending outside the congressional appropriations process. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, will continue operating.
Locally, all or nearly all of the 218 “dual status” technicians at the 106th Rescue Wing at Gabreski Air Base, who had been previously furloughed due to sequestration budget cuts, will now be furloughed for the duration of the shutdown.
At Stony Brook University, the payment management system at the National Institutes of Health, SBU’s largest source of research funds, will be available, but administrative support will not. Researchers can draw down money from their grants unless the request needs to be reviewed or approved. New grant applications can be filed, but they will not be acted upon until the workforce returns. The direct student loan program will not be affected.
National parks are closed. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Long Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex locations will be closed, including in Amagansett, as well as the Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge in Noyac.
Additionally, the Superstorm Sandy supplemental appropriations legislation will continue to fund work on Sandy-related construction projects including the Fire Island to Montauk Point Study and the emergency project to stabilize the beach in downtown Montauk. Impact on Sandy construction projects and other future operations could be affected in the event of a prolonged shutdown.
Many government websites will be down or have limited functionality as well.
To encourage those who have been furloughed, President Obama sent out a letter on Tuesday, thanking the American people for their hard work and ensuring them that he is working to get government back up and functioning.
“This shutdown was completely preventable. It should not have happened,” he wrote. “You defend our country overseas and ensure that our troops receive the benefits they deserve when they come home. You guard our borders and protect our civil rights. You help small businesses expand and gain new footholds in overseas markets. You guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glory of America’s national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Statue of Liberty. You do all this in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag. I will continue to do everything in my power to get the House of Representatives to allow our government to reopen as quickly as possible, and make sure you receive the pay that you have earned.”