Monday, September 26, 2011

Government Shutdown? Now a Battle for the Soul of America

by Rick Ungar

For the third time in nine months, the threat of a government shutdown is back on the table.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, such an event would pass mostly unnoticed.  Planes will still fly as federally paid air-traffic controllers continue to control the skies, federal law enforcement and military efforts will continue and social security checks will go out in the mail. 

However, for one very special class of Americans—the victims of this year's spate of deadly and destructive disasters—there will be nothing that is the least bit routine about such a shutdown.

At some point this week, FEMA, the federal agency struggling to keep up with the extraordinary pain and suffering created by this year's record number of disasters, will run out of money. The continued funding of the agency, plus the recognition that their budget must be increased to meet the demands of the many who have been stricken, is at the heart of the latest game of chicken being played out in Washington.

In the right corner sit the Congressional Republicans, willing to provide additional FEMA funding only if the outlay can be paid for by taking a like amount of money from another government program—in this case, a popular and effective loan program that assists automakers in retooling their operations to make more fuel-efficient cars.

In the left corner sits the challenger, the Senate Democrats (and a few Republicans) who see no reason that this badly needed aid should require offsets and understand that holding suffering people hostage is not only bad form, but is a complete violation of America's core values.

This disagreement is holding up a Continuing Resolution that will keep the government funded through mid-November. Without passage, the budget will run out at the end of the week and the government will not only lack the money needed to continue operating but will leave disaster victims out in the cold—in some cases, literally.

The willingness of those who would treat fellow Americans in such a despicable way makes this particular fight nothing less than a battle for the soul of the nation.

While many, including myself, disagree with the manner in which the GOP has chosen to go about the business of reducing the cost of government through defunding social safety net programs while gladly retaining corporate welfare, we can, at the least, acknowledge the benefits of saving the taxpayers' money by working to make government operate on a sensible budget. To make this happen, Republicans have decided that any increased budget expenditures in one agency or department of government must be offset by a similar reduction to another.

This is the rule that the Republicans have chosen to live by and, on some level, I suppose that can work.

However, to every rule there is the exception that proves the rule. 

Were the GOP to fully realize and internalize the dire straits of Americans affected by Hurricane Irene, the never before experienced cold spells in Oklahoma, the tornadoes thatdestroyed towns like Joplin, Missouri, the floods that damaged and destroyed homes and lives throughout the Midwest, and the seemingly never-ending drought that has set Texas on fire,they would grasp that these disasters are the exceptions to their rule. Were they able to understand this, they would do themselves, and their political fortunes, a considerable service.

By failing to understand the rule of exceptions, the GOP has revealed the hardness of their hearts and shed a glaring and unflattering light on their agenda.

It didn't have to be this way.

Had the Congressional Republicans, particularly the Tea Party Caucus, pointed out that Americans suffering through circumstances they did not cause and could not have defended against serves as the exception to their rule, they would have gone a long way in gaining support for their approach to reducing the cost of government.  By demonstrating that the need to deal with an unexpected crisis in a reasonable and rational way, serves to highlight the importance of conserving taxpayer dollars so the money is there when people in the crisis need it, Republicans would have scored points for their cause and eased their way the next time they wanted to apply the rule of offsets. 

After all, it is easier to believe in the motives of ideologues when they demonstrate they are able to feel the pain of others when situations arise that require a temporary modification to their rules.

By failing to acknowledge the obvious, the GOP reveals themselves to be not only uncaring, but, even worse, incapable of thinking beyond their simple core principles in the effort to craft intelligent policy.

It also highlights the inconsistency of the GOP agenda.

As Steve Benen points out in today's Political Animal column

For many years now, congressional Republicans have been willing to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, and never sought a dime of spending offsets. Now, with a weak economy and American communities hit by natural disasters, GOP officials decide foreign spending doesn’t need comparable cuts but spending in the U.S. does?

Government shutdown or not, the Republicans in control of Congress, through their simple-minded approach to dealing with an unexpected and not particularly complex problem, have proven themselves intellectually unfit to be making the decisions we expect from a sound government.

Shame on any American who fails to remember this come November, 2012.

Rick Ungar is a blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. To follow him on Twitter, click here. Get Rick Ungar's RSS feed.

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