October 1, 2013
As I write this, the federal government has entered the first day of a shutdown. Personally, I think this is insanity. I also think that you deserve to hear directly from me about all of this. I apologize in advance for the length of this newsletter.
How We Got Here
The House and Senate each passed different budgets for Fiscal Year 2014. Since April, Republicans have repeatedly rejected efforts by Democrats to convene a Conference Committee to work out those differences. This all but guaranteed the need for a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government. Itís worth noting that after six months of rejecting requests to go to conference to work out the budget differences, Speaker Boehner last night suddenly changed his mind. This comes after numerous votes on a CR that would also repeal or gut the Affordable Care Act (ACA), all of which were rejected by the Senate and the President. By the way, a government shutdown didnít prevent the ACA from moving forward. You may have noticed that the exchanges opened today and the relevant websites received almost 3 million hits already.
I am absolutely convinced that if the Speaker simply brought a straightforward CR (known as a ďclean CRĒ) to the floor extending government funding into FY 2014, a bipartisan majority would support it. Indeed, Republicans from Senator John McCain to Rep. Peter King have said essentially that.
The Senate has passed a clean CR that accepts the Republican spending limits. Those limits represent a significant compromise in terms of funding levels. In fact the funding proposed in the current Senate CR stands at $986 billion. Thatís about 10% LESS than House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan proposed in his original budget and includes a continuation of the sequester cuts. Even if the majority of Members can support this level of spending, I have not yet decided how I would vote if given the opportunity.
What Happens Now?
To be honest, I really donít know. In the House, the majority has absolute control over the agenda and at least as I write this, the Speaker is not willing to bring forward a clean CR. We have just been informed that tonight the House will take up legislation to extend funding for specific functions, such as the National Park Service. This piecemeal approach is unacceptable to me and is not a sincere effort to address funding. This is more about minimizing the visual impact of a shuttered national park than it is about making a serious effort to reopen the federal government.
Why Is This Happening?
Ostensibly, the Republicans say they will do anything to repeal health care. Theyíve demonstrated this commitment by voting 42 times to repeal or gut it. I think they are being honest about their commitment to repeal the ACA but dishonest about other motivations. Remember, many of the Members pushing this confrontation are the same people who have been trying to slash government spending for years. I am not referring to small cuts or belt tightening, I mean deep reductions in dozens of programs. Here are just a couple examples. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money is already down 26% from FY 2010 to FY 2012. This summer, House Republicans tried to further slash CDBG by 45% of its current level. This money is used by cities and towns for economic development, infrastructure improvements and so much more. Grants supporting school safety and youth violence prevention are down 66%. I could cite countless examples to underscore the spending reductions that have already occurred but I think you get my point.
In the past two years alone, total deficit reduction amounted to approximately $2.4 trillion. 75% of this came from spending reductions. Federal discretionary spending is already on track to come in at the lowest levels since the Eisenhower Administration. Personally I do not think this is good or wise, but that is a different discussion.
Democrats believe in the principle behind the ACA. It expands access to health care to millions of Americans and will, over time, reduce health care costs. Much of the Republican rhetoric enflaming this debate rests on the claim that Americans donít like ďObamacareĒ. They obviously forgot that Mitt Romney ran for President with the promise of repeal and he lost by almost 3 and a half million votes. Furthermore, Democrats received 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in the House and Democrats held the Senate. Clearly, based on the results of actual voting, a significant majority of Americans support the effort to expand health care. This certainly does not mean the ACA is perfect. There are several provisions of the law that I myself would amend or repeal. Many of us would love an honest chance to fix certain portions of the law, but in this environment thatís just not possible. Many Republicans wonít consider any adjustments to the law, no matter how much sense those adjustments might make, because they view any tweak as de facto support of the ACA. Social Security was not perfect when it first passed and neither was Medicare. Adjustments were made over the years to improve both programs. The ACA should be treated the same way. It is the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012 as constitutional.
Where are the Moderate Republicans?
American politics has taken a major turn over the last few decades and both parties have lost a lot of moderate voters. Many simply checked out of the two-party system. They donít vote during primaries and donít always vote in general elections. The result has been that those who DO get involved in the primaries choose the nominees. Activist voters on both ends of the spectrum tend to be more committed to their singular view of the world. The Tea Party is not the only example, but they are the most visible. The Tea Party encourages candidates who agree with their uncompromising approach and supports them in primaries. They work to defeat candidates they regard as too moderate or too inclined to compromise ó and often win primary elections. Republicans such as former Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana have been defeated this way. Texas Senator Ted Cruz defeated a more moderate Republican in a primary. Sometimes, extreme candidates who can win a primary go on to lose general elections, but in places like Texas, it is very difficult for a Democrat to win statewide under the best of circumstances.
Sadly, some Republicans who are more thoughtful in their views and reasonable in their approach to law-making can be intimidated by the prospect of a Tea Party backed primary challenger. That prospect, all too real, often results in their silence and acquiescence when the time comes to speak up and vote. Hopefully, the moderate wing of the Republican Congress will soon retake their party so America can come forward again.
Impact on the Economy
The White House estimates that this shutdown will cost the economy about $10 billion a week. What does that mean in local terms? When 80% of the workers at the JFK office building in Boston donít go to work they might not have enough money to pay their bills this month. Even if they can pay their bills, they might not have enough left over to buy fall clothes for their children who have outgrown most of last yearís wardrobe. They also wonít be buying lunch across the street from their office, grabbing that afternoon coffee, taking the commuter rail to work or buying gas for the trip in every day. All of that spending helps fuel the economy and when this spending does not occur, it is lost forever.
Will Federal Workers Get Back Pay When This Is Settled?
If you have been following this debate, you have heard the terms essential and nonessential associated with the federal workforce. Personnel deemed nonessential cannot report to work. In fact, they cannot check their voicemail or respond to an email. Essential personnel must report to work without pay. In 1996 when the government shut down, federal workers were paid retroactively. This time, no one knows if or when anyone will get paid, even those who were required to report to work. The environment in 2013 is certainly more rancorous.
Congressional Health Care
I am sure you have heard some of the demagogues railing about special benefits that Members of Congress and staff receive. All I can say is that this is a bald-faced lie.
My staff and I are Federal employees and receive the EXACT same benefits that ALL federal employees receive. In fact, we are the only employees in the federal government who are REQUIRED to purchase health insurance through the ACA exchanges. The government pays a share of health insurance premiums for ALL federal employees and that remains the same under the ACA as well. This is no different than many private sector employees and has been the policy for decades. In fact, over the years, the employee out of pocket costs have increased a fair amount. Furthermore, we get the same insurance policies as many Americans. Personally, I am covered by Blue Cross and have had the same primary care physician in Cambridge for more than 30 years. Simply put, there are NO special deals for Members of Congress or their staff.
To me, disagreement is a part of life, even when it is as deep as this one. But lying for the sole purpose of angering people is contemptible. If youíre interested, Iíve attached some additional information about this issue:
Disagreement over the Continuing Resolution is causing great difficulty to be sure. But the challenges surrounding the CR pale in comparison to the next big battle: raising the debt limit. According to the Treasury, the United States is set to hit the debt limit on or about October 17th. If Congress does not raise that limit, the government will not have enough money to pay bills that have already been incurred. If the debt limit is not raised, the impact on the economy could be catastrophic and every reputable economist agrees.
I donít know how or when this will all end but I will do my best to represent your interests.