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Shutting Down the US Government


Libertarians might well wonder why government should continue existing given the latest congressional antics in the United States. With metaphors likening it to a grocery store, we are being told that the U.S. government will cease to be funded this coming week, a massive “shutdown” the like of which has not been seen since speaker Newt Gingrich ran with the idea in 1996. Non-essential services will cease to operate. Museums and national parks will close.

The problem remains how this could happen to begin with. In Congress it is money, not knowledge, that is power, and tightening the strings in the manner of a serial killing strangler is something that some members of that body are intent on doing.

For some years now, the government has been funded by “continuing resolutions”, which makes the U.S. almost singular in the way it functions in its powerful reach. Obama may have the power to order an extra-judicial strike on a human target in Pakistan, or preside over surveillance central and a state hostile to whistleblowing. (Those “services” will continue to operate, shut down or otherwise.) But he can barely convince the Tea Party about whether money should come through for the operations of day to day government.

One such man intent on having maximum impact is Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), whose “filibuster” last week lasted 21 hours and 19 minutes – the fourth longest in Senate history. With disgruntled industry, Cruz and his supporters have set to attack Obamacare with fanatical grit. Defund it with immediacy, claim the noisy ideologues of the Tea Party. Not only was it not working, it was serving to be “the biggest job killer in this country”. Not that Cruz was making much sense at stages – that would be asking too much. “By any measure Obamacare is a far less intimidating foe than those I have discussed (Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, etc.) with the possible exception of the Moon. The Moon might be as intimidating as Obamacare.”

Of course, Cruz found populist imagery appealing. “We do not work for the intelligentsia in the big cities who write newspaper editorials.” Nor the cocktail-party set. Cruz draws from that rhetorical arsenal heavy with inferences as to who the “people” are, though never actually says what they are.

The GOP is in a muddle over the Cruz problem. Senator John McCain has used the not so endearing term of “wacko bird” to describe Cruz. Rand Paul, on the other hand, sees value in how to use Cruz. “Paul,” argues Sam Youngman of The Daily Beast (Sep 29), “is running to win the nomination, and he doesn’t mind using Cruz as a comedic foil to help him do it.” Let the poorly disguised fringe do the work of the more moderate centre.

More broadly speaking, patient and doctor are indistinguishable in the political stable of the right, and the ones to go down with the ship will be the likes of McCain and others who would rather survive the electoral slaughter that might visit them. The legacy of Bill Clinton’s triumph after the shutdown antics of 1996 remain fresh in the minds of senior republicans. But this is the season for ballyhoo extremism, notably in one of the most polarised Congresses in history.

U.S. voters are truly disaffected creatures, but however alienated or disgusted, they can still turn up and cast a ballot in the hope it might be counted. The Democrats have no reason to gloat, but the GOP brand label is in trouble enough as it is, trapped in a reactionary time warp that doesn’t threaten to abate just yet. The Tea Party crew, while not entirely unreasonable in their objection to bloated government programs, find themselves short in the political stakes but long in effect. Indeed, House Republicans approved a spending plan on Sunday morning that would have the effect of delaying Obamacare for a year and repeal its tax on medical devices.

At this point, come midnight on Monday, the funds will dry up if another continuing resolution is not negotiated. The continuing resolution for the current term is set at $984 billion. Other countries will be keeping an eye on the situation, including China, whose assets may well be parked elsewhere given the promise of instability. In a political system which tends to operate on the premise of business parties and even bigger business parties, this will be a poor result. If not business, then what?

As Eamon Fingleton explained in Forbes (Sep 29), “If the creditor nations were to sell just a small proportion of their American assets, they could send Wall Street into a tailspin, with unpleasant implications for many Republicans.” But Tea Party populism was never designed to be worldly, whatever the consequences of its wielding.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  He ran for the Australian Senate with Julian Assange for the WikiLeaks Party.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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