Today is the last chance Congress has to keep the government running. This can be done by simply passing a budget, a duty of Congress clearly laid out in the Constitution. The fight has been over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, pitting the Democrat-controlled Senate against the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Republicans in the House and Senate are keen to include amendments in the budget that strip the new healthcare law, by eliminating the medical device tax, or delaying the law’s implementation for one year, citing that the law has already been delayed for large corporations. Why are we at such an impasse, and what will be the consequences if the government is no longer funded?
The Fight Over “Obamacare”
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the law’s full name, has been treated by Republicans in both Houses of Congress as an immense overreach by the Federal Government. They argue that the law will make it more costly to buy coverage, will cause jobs to be lost, and will infringe on the individual’s freedom of choice to own health insurance or not. The debate got so heated that the question of the law’s constitutional merits made its way to the Supreme Court in 2012, where Conservative-leaning Chief Judge John Roberts surprisingly sided with the liberal arm of the bench in upholding the law by 5 votes to 4. Democrats, on the other hand, profess that the law will increase coverage for millions of Americans (15.4% of the population was not covered in 2012, according to the Census Bureau). Significantly, the law also prevents insurers from denying coverage to people who have pre-existing conditions. Proponents of the law further explain that under the current insurance system, ordinary citizens end up indirectly paying for those uninsured that are cared for in emergency rooms; the Affordable Care Act would eliminate this situation.
What Happens in a Government Shutdown
A government shutdown does not mean that the country grinds to a halt. The first order of business, if a budget is not agreed to, will be to distinguish between essential and nonessential government employees. Those deemed nonessential will temporarily take leave, for example, park rangers will begin closing down the national parks. According to CNN, about 783,000 of the 3.3 million government employees will be considered nonessential. However, the economy could be seriously affected depending on the length of the shutdown. According to Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody’s Analytics, a three to four week shutdown, “would do significant economic damage,” lowering the country’s GDP by up to 1.4% for the quarter.
Legislators have until midnight, today, to pass a budget. Over the weekend, the House of Representatives passed a budget with two amendments; one which delays the implementation of the law for a year, and another that eliminates the bill’s medical device tax. The Senate will vote on the House bill today. Many Democrats, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV), pledge to reject any budget that reduces the scope of the Affordable Care Act. With that being the case, the government seems likely to shut down for the first time since late 1995, when the government was left without a budget for 21 days.