Government Taken Hostage

You might think that the scariest part of last week was Thursday afternoon, when shots erupted from directly outside my Constitution Avenue office. You’d be wrong. By far, it was the hostage crisis I witnessed in the nation’s capital at 11:59 on Monday night.

By law, Congress is required to pass an annual federal budget to fund “discretionary programs.” That budget consists of 12 appropriations bills that encapsulate various federal programs. These appropriations differ from the other primary type of legislation: authorization bills. The latter creates the programs while the former funds them.

However, discretionary programs are anything but discretionary. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the FDA are considered discretionary programs, yet these programs are still vital services. Note that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – Obamacare – is not discretionary spending, it’s a mandatory program – this will be important later.

Historically, we pass all 12 appropriations bills. Lately, we’ve passed only a few. This year, we passed none. Nevertheless, the government largely continues to function. Some programs lose funding, but Congress traditionally passes stopgap– temporary– measures called “continuing resolutions” (or CR’s) to maintain discretionary spending at their current levels. Our most recent CR financed the government through the fiscal year 2013, which ended last Monday night.

That brings us back to our current hostage crisis. A few Republicans denied a vote on a normal CR that would extend spending for 10 weeks (now 6 weeks). Instead, they insisted on attaching a “nongermane” rider– one that would defund the ACA. Typically, these riders are minor amendments that somehow relate to appropriation bill at hand. However, this rider goes far beyond discretionary spending and alters the authorizing legislation. Even Karl Rove warned Republicans that this strategy was a mistake.

Now, think back to 2006. President Bush’s signature healthcare reform, Medicare Part D, is going into effect. However, Democrats, who know it’s entirely unfunded and unethically passed, oppose it. So, the Democrats filibuster the nominations of “essential HHS appointees” to stop them “from administering the law” as NBC’s Chuck Todd put it. They vote dozens of times to repeal it. They challenge it in the courts. They spend millions of dollars to persuade seniors against it. And after all of these fail, the House Democrats attempt to defund it in an appropriations bill.

Sounds a lot like today, right?  Except, it’s all complete fiction; Democrats did nothing of the sort when they opposed Bush’s reforms.  Republicans’ intransigence is uniquely irresponsible.

The Republicans say they’re negotiating. They’re not – just listen to Rand Paul’s conversation with Mitch McConnell. But, actions speak louder than words, so let’s look at the iterations of the House’s amendments. They moved from completely defunding the ACA, to a one year delay in its entirety, to a delay of the individual mandate and denial of benefits to Congressional staffers.

Maybe that seems reasonable. But, personally, I’ll never negotiate with a gun to my head, whether it’s a 12-guage shotgun or a smaller 9mm.

Fool me once, shame on you. Democrats and moderate Republicans have sincerely tried to govern. However, the exploding use of the filibuster has prevented that, according to The Century Foundation. The New Yorker calculates that, on average, there are as many filibusters as there are in-session days. The House is no better. A bipartisan immigration reform bill was “dead on arrival” in the House.

But, fool me twice, shame on me. This time, let’s not be fooled. Michele Bachmann boasted House Republicans are outright happy about the shutdown. Republican Representative Marlin Stutzman bragged: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Now that we’ve received the ransom note, let’s call this what it is: a hostage crisis.

Speaker Boehner claims the Democrats are not negotiating, despite the compromise Democrats made with Republicans on spending levels. But more importantly, funding the government is non-negotiable. Raising the debt ceiling is non-negotiable. Take care of those issues. Speaker Boehner: bring a clean CR to the floor, regardless of your ad-hoc Hastert Rule. Then talk about Obamacare; everyone is open to ironing out an admittedly imperfect law. Just put the gun down first.

Nick Ahamed’s political column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at nahamed@stanford.edu

About Nick Ahamed

Nick Ahamed is a liberal political columnist at the Stanford Daily. Previously on campus, he has served as the President of the Stanford Democrats and led President Obama's reelection campaign efforts at Stanford. He was later involved in policy in Washington, D.C. Issues of race, inequality and Islamophobia motivate his current research. He is a junior from Minneapolis, MN majoring in Political Science. To contact him, please email nahamed@stanford.edu.