The sky hasn’t fallen in. This was the mantra being espoused by Tea Party-affiliated Republican politicians and far-right pundits as the United States federal government shutdown ominously rolled on towards its third day.
And, on the surface, life as most Americans know it has not immediately changed. The mail was delivered Tuesday and Wednesday; airports remained open. But there is little doubt angst and animosity is percolating around the country.
As is customary in the US, those lacking much of a voice — groups such as single mothers with young children backed by federal support programs — were instantly the hardest hit. But the maddening spectacle of a country seemingly “held hostage by a small, extreme wing of the Republican Party”, as many Congress leaders kept repeating today, is growing old fast.
In an almost ironic twist, as this all unfolds, the much-vaunted online health insurance markets — a key plank of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — has opened its virtual doors. Much to the chagrin of Republicans opposed to the law, the websites hosting the markets have struggled under the weight of demand. And many of those hoping to sign up at designated offices in person were turned away and told to come back next week.
For his part, President Obama tartly made his point in public. There is no negotiation. Obamacare is law. It has been approved by all of the appropriate channels, from the two houses of Congress up to the US Supreme Court.
Based on the mannerisms he exhibited today, there is little doubt he believes he holds the leverage. Polls suggest most Americans blame the Republicans and Tea Party affiliated and centrist members of the party are beginning to turn on each other. Visibly irritated, the President went on the offensive, insisting he wanted to work on a real budget and stop governing from “crisis to crisis”.
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“During the course of my presidency I have bent over backwards working with the Republican Party,” he said, with barely restrained fury. “Sometimes people think I am too calm. [But] I am absolutely exasperated.”
Yet after a 90-minute meeting tonight American time with Republican and Democrat congressional leaders (none from the Tea Party faction, mind), the stalemate continued. Tuesday night here, it began to emerge that the shutdown may at least continue through the week.
Standing outside the White House just after 7pm, Democrat leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi gathered before a huge media throng (pictured) and said, essentially, nothing has changed. Pelosi was firm: “Frankly that’s not what our constitution had in mind — that if you don’t like something, you can shut down the government.” Reid was similarly terse, pointing out Tea Party representatives like Michelle Bachmann were rejoicing at the anarchy of the situation: “She said: ‘Finally we are where we want to be.’ We have closed down the government.”
Like or loathe the law, it is the law, they say. If Republicans want to change it, they must get the numbers and vote to repeal it. Or, campaign and wait for a change in government.
As the shutdown rolls on, because of the fragmented nature of government in the US (it is split between local city, local county, state and then federal departments) some states are faring better than others. The state of Virginia and the city of Washington DC, with their massive clusters of federal government workers, are suffering badly. It’s here that a good proportion of the 800,000 workers locked out of their offices indefinitely without pay are based.
Although it is tax season here, the IRS has stopped manning its call centres, audits are suspended and tax refunds will not be issued. Around the country employers were locked out of the website that allows companies to verify employees are legally able to work. As with most of the rest of the country, the biggest impact here in Miami, Florida appeared to be on the state’s largest national park, the Everglades, which is now shuttered. Those camping at the park were given 48 hours to vacate. As with businesses located near the Grand Canyon, there was talk today that tourism operators in the Everglades may attempt to band together to fund a temporary re-opening of the park.
There has clearly been a significant shift in many US city economies in the past two decades, particularly in places such as New York, Washington DC and San Francisco. When Crikey visited San Francisco a fortnight ago near the conclusion of the America’s Cup, the place was humming, with the must-see Alcatraz tour sold out four days in advance. Alcatraz, though, is run by the National Parks Service, which has closed it.
Today, two San Francisco tour companies contacted by Crikey said they have stopped selling Alcatraz tickets until the shutdown ends and were refunding disgruntled customers, many who are unable to change travel plans. “It’s hard for us, but we’re just taking it day by day,” a representative from Big Bus Tours said. Much like the rest of the country.