Government shutdown speaks volumes about Washington’s misplaced priorities

triageWith the federal government being shut down over a health care reform law – which, despite its many imperfections, is likely to provide real help to millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance – it’s difficult for many of us to wrap our heads around the logic of the partisan squabbling.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, has plenty of critics on both the left and the right, with progressives complaining that it doesn’t go far enough by failing to offer a public alternative to the for-profit health-insurance industry and conservatives complaining that it goes too far in establishing a government intrusion into the “free market.” But at the end of the day, most impartial observers maintain that while flawed, the new law will be a marked improvement over the current state of affairs, with tens of millions of Americans presently uninsured and insurance companies enjoying free reign to deny policyholders needed care on the basis of supposed “pre-existing conditions,” or other technicalities.

Further, the law which was duly adopted among spirited debate four years ago has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court and the president who championed it in 2009 was handily reelected in 2012.

For what it’s worth, I am firmly in the progressive camp and was vociferously opposed to the adoption of this law on the basis that it would force Americans into buying products (insurance policies) from morally bankrupt companies that have routinely denied needed care to sick people in order to maximize their profits. As far as I am concerned, these companies are guilty of murder and after all their abuses, it seemed to me perverse to force uninsured Americans to purchase policies from these very same corporations without even offering the once-touted “public option,” a Medicare buy-in, or any other arrangement that would offer an effective competition to the monopoly that the insurance industry enjoys.

While those concerns are still on my mind and the minds of many other supporters of a single-payer health care system, the current impasse over Obamacare is mystifying. It is sadly evident that the debate has degenerated into one over whether the government has any right whatsoever to take even mild steps to ensure that Americans have any access to medical care. With the far right wing of the Republican Party having hijacked the debate by essentially blackmailing the policymaking apparatus of the republic by threatening to shut down the entire federal government, many of us on the left find ourselves resigned to supporting Obamacare, despite principled reservations to the law.

Our reluctant support of the law has been compelled by the self-evident reality that the motivation behind the Tea Party’s uncompromising resistance to this law is that uninsured working class people might reap some tangible benefit at the supposed expense of insurance companies and employers. But what is perhaps even more troubling is that this extreme measure – shutting down the entire apparatus of the federal government, denying paychecks to 800,000 federal employees, potentially delaying salaries of 1.4 million military service members and possibly wreaking havoc on the economy – is being used now, over this law, while it hasn’t been employed over any other controversy in recent memory.

In 2006, for example, Democrats rode a wave of antiwar sentiment into midterm election victories that placed them in control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as a majority of governorships and state legislatures. A New York Times/CBS News poll published just before the elections showed that a substantial majority of Americans expected Democrats to reduce or end American military involvement in Iraq if they won, with just 29 percent approving of the way that President George W. Bush was “managing” the war.

“The poll underlined the extent to which the war has framed the midterm elections,” the New York Times reported at the time. “Americans cited Iraq as the most important issue affecting their vote, and majorities of Republicans and Democrats said they wanted a change in approach.”

Following the elections, House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi reiterated the Democratic pledge to ending the war in an article entitled “Bringing the War to an End is my Highest Priority as Speaker.” After visiting wounded Iraq veterans at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, she wrote that she was “more committed than ever to bringing the war to an end.”

“I told my colleagues yesterday that the biggest ethical issue facing our country for the past three and a half years is the war in Iraq,” Pelosi wrote. “When the House reconvenes on January 4, 2007, Democrats will take power and I will take the gavel knowing the responsibility we have to you and to the country. The new Democratic Congress will … honor the trust of the American people; we will not disappoint.”

Upon taking office, however, Democrats largely reneged on their antiwar pledges. Instead of forcing a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq through employing the power of the purse, the Democratic majority allowed the Bush administration to carry out an unpopular “troop surge” policy that was later credited with essentially “winning” the Iraq war.

Fast-forward to the financial crisis of 2008 and you see a similar dynamic play out. Despite a solid majority of the American public opposing the Bush administration’s $700 billion bailout of Wall Street in the form of Treasury Department purchases of distressed assets and direct cash infusions to the banks, the Democratic Congress conceded once again in the supposed interest of the greater good. At the time, it was argued, it appeared there were few other options, and in order to keep the economy afloat, the taxpayers would have to take a fall for the reckless unbridled greed of Wall Street banksters.

Ironically, it was the precedent set by the 2008 bailout and the subsequent stimulus package proposed by the Obama administration (along with health care reform) that is credited with inspiring the birth of the Tea Party movement of 2009, which then led to historic Republican victories in the midterms of 2010.

The childish temper tantrums now taking place in Washington over the looming implementation of Obamacare is arguably a direct result of those earlier decisions of the Democrats to capitulate over the Iraq War and the bank bailouts. Now, it could be said, the ever-accommodating Democrats are reaping what they have sown with the Tea Party-led shutdown of the federal government.

What is perhaps more edifying about the whole episode though is that the only thing these days that seems to bring Washington to such a precipice is the ridiculous controversy of health care reform. Endless war? No problem. Trillion-dollar bank bailouts? No debate. Taking measures to provide health insurance to 47 million uninsured Americans? No way!

It’s a shame not necessarily that Washington, D.C., is being shut down this week, but that it is being shut down over this. How this must look to the rest of the world, with most countries having long ago established some kind of national health care policy, is hard to comprehend.

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