Sometimes, I think the government shutdown might have been averted if the negotiations’ participants had avoided uttering the word “government.” That word seems to make the right wing of the Republican Party and its representatives in Congress break out in a rash of loathing.
Ironically, it turns out that those same people—the ones who hate government—also love national parks and monuments, border security, and veterans. And I would wager that they love clean water and uncontaminated food.
The disconnect between the two ideas is stunning. It is as if those who hate government flunked eighth-grade civics and have no idea what the government actually is or how it works. But in the two weeks since many of the government’s programs and services stopped functioning, conservatives’ ideology has clashed with hard reality.
Members of Congress are hearing from outraged constituents who can’t get loans from the Small Business Administration, from desperate parents whose sick children cannot receive drugs or treatment at the National Institutes of Health, from furloughed workers who can’t pay their bills, and from frustrated citizens who want to give them a time-out until they act like adults.
Thus far, conservatives’ response to the shutdown has been selective outrage and denial. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT)—who both helped engineer the shutdown—recently led protests at the barricaded World War II Memorial as though they were victims, not perpetrators. “Why is the federal government spending money to erect barricades to keep veterans out of [the World War II] memorial?” Sen. Cruz asked the crowd, ignoring two inconvenient facts: As a senator, he represents the government, and his radical insistence on linking government funding to defunding Obamacare led to the shutdown.
Selective outrage is also on display in the House of Representatives, where conservative members are voting for appropriations bills to fund selected pieces of the government. Such picking and choosing is like ordering from the a la carte side of a menu. “Make that a double order of national parks and monuments, with some veterans’ benefits on the side, but skip the Environmental Protection Agency and Head Start.”
Such a piecemeal approach to government funding makes no sense. While conservative politicians figure out which pet projects they want to approve, workplaces are not being inspected for safety, transportation accidents are not being investigated, homebuyers can’t get loans, and the horrible list continues.
As if the shutdown weren’t bad enough, a number of right-wing politicians have been threatening to take the global economy over a cliff by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, which simply allows the United States to pay the bills it already owes. The debt ceiling deadline is this week, and it is no exaggeration to say the whole world is watching.
In fact, the world is doing more than watching. Leaders of the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, and the World Bank were in Washington at their annual meeting last weekend, where they “pleaded, warned, and cajoled” our political leaders to “raise [the] debt ceiling and reopen [the] government or,” according to IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde, “risk ‘massive disruption the world over.’ And yesterday, faith leaders and furloughed workers added their voices to the protest as they went to House GOP offices on Capitol Hill to march and pray for an end to the government shutdown, which has disproportionately hurt low-income families. Faith leaders asked for a “clean and unconditional continuing resolution [to fund the government] and to raise the debt ceiling.” Faith leaders also delivered 30,000 petition signatures to Congressional district offices around the country.
Let us hope that the swarming rush of real-world impacts—along with prayers, protests, and negative polling—will bend the rigid intransigence of politicians who are shutdown supporters and debt limit deniers. If they refuse to bend to such a mighty force, they will break.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.