The US power failure: 800,000 face weeks of unpaid lay-offs as Republicans and Democrats force partial shutdown of government over Obamacare

Has the United States been more divided in living memory?

Washington

And so – absurdly, shamefully and almost incomprehensibly – it has come to this. The legislature of the richest, most powerful country on earth, that likes to present itself as a model of democracy and good sense, has failed in its basic task of providing funds to keep the federal government running.

Of course, not everything will shut. The US military will not be affected, and those, like air traffic controllers and prison guards who perform vital services, will remain on the job. In many parts of the country, the impact will be little felt, at least to begin with. But for 800,000 federal workers deemed less essential, days or weeks of unpaid lay-offs beckon. How on earth did it come to this?

President Obama was left to rail against the "ideological crusade" against Obamacare, vowing not to "give in to the reckless demands by some in the Republican Party to deny affordable health insurance to millions of hard-working Americans".

In some respects, what is happening in Washington DC is not unusual. America has a presidential system, not a parliamentary one like Britain. Here, the annual federal budget the White House sends Congress is merely an opening gambit. On Capitol Hill, the process restarts from scratch. If control of Congress is divided, as now, no budget may be passed at all.

Indeed the last time a budget was enacted fully and on schedule, with separate appropriation bills for government departments, was in 1997. But recently the deadlock has worsened. An overall spending bill has not been approved for three years. Stopgap “continuing resolutions” (CR), which keep government open while the Republican-controlled House and the majority-Democrat Senate bicker, have been the norm. At midnight on Monday the latest CR ran out. Congress could not agree on a new one.

Further reading

Latest news: Obama vows not to give in to 'ideological crusade'

Q&A: All you need to know about the crisis in America

Matthew Norman: US shutdown isn’t serious, but reasons behind it are

Editorial: There could be so much worse to come

Nor is a shutdown without precedent. The last – and at 21 days the longest – occurred in 1995-96, during Bill Clinton’s first term. Indeed it was during that enforced idleness that the President began his fateful dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But when it was over, no serious economic damage was done. This time, however, things look different.

Back then, the economy was strong. Today, recovery from the 2008 financial crisis is still fragile. At the very least, the closure and the accompanying lay-offs will reduce consumer confidence and spending. And in a deeper sense, the impasse reflects an ever more polarised and dysfunctional political system, where compromise is a dirty word.

Both sides are to blame. But the root of the problem, beyond argument, is a Republican party that is losing touch with reality. Even its control of the House of Representatives is a distortion. In the Congressional vote in 2012, Democratic candidates polled half a million more votes. But thanks to gerrymandering by Republican-run state legislatures, the GOP ensured itself a majority.

Gerrymandering, in turn, has led to safer seats, in which the danger to an incumbent is – increasingly – less the general election in which he faces a Democrat, than a possible challenge from a more conservative fellow Republican in the primary. That in turn has pushed the Congressional party further to the right, allowing the minority Tea Party faction to make the running. More centrist, pragmatic members fear to make deals with Democrats that will be held against them by the hardline activists who dominate primary voting.

The 1995-96 crisis ended when the Republican Senate leader Bob Dole went on the chamber floor and declared in so many words: “Enough.” Dole was about to launch a White House bid, and was anxious to project himself as a moderate and problem-solver. How different now.

The current Republican leader, who might be expected to lead efforts to secure an agreement, is Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But Mr McConnell is not running for president. Instead, he is most worried about a potential primary challenge from the right, as he seeks a sixth Senate term in 2014. A display of pragmatism might doom him.

Back then, too, the Republican House was led by Newt Gingrich, then at the height of his powers, who got on well with Bill Clinton, despite their ideological differences. John Boehner, today’s Speaker, is no Gingrich. Instinctively he is a deal-maker, but his priority is to avoid a confrontation with the Tea Party that could cost him his job.

Polarisation has also broken down old conventions on Capitol Hill. The Senate and House used to be completely separate, even rival, entities – but no longer. One extraordinary feature of this crisis has been the spectacle of Ted Cruz, the firebrand Republican first-term senator from Texas, organising House conservatives in their resistance.

Which leads to a third difference with 1995-96. That shutdown was a dispute about fiscal policy, the eternal debate over taxes and spending. This one is about policy, namely President Obama’s 2010 health reform, whose delay (and ultimately demise) Republicans seek as the price of a new CR.

The classic definition of insanity is to go on doing the same thing, and expect a different outcome. And so it is now. The Republican House has passed 40-odd resolutions to overturn Obamacare, and each time the Democratic Senate has said, no. Now it is trying again, and the outcome – utterly predictably – is the same.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The public blame the Republicans for the shutdown; even the US Chamber of Commerce, normally a staunch ally, has expressed displeasure at the party’s tactics. For his part, President Obama vows not to give an inch. So, however, do the Republicans.

Something, sooner or later, will have to give. Perhaps public fury will shame Congress into a deal. But don’t bank on it. Even before this debacle, Congress’s approval rating was barely 10 per cent, making it marginally less popular than colonoscopies or communists. The institution, it would appear, is beyond shame. Just possibly, the crisis could provoke a rupture within Republican ranks. But again, don’t bank on it.

And this could be merely a warm-up. On 17 October, the US will hit its federal borrowing ceiling and unless Congress authorises an increase, could default on some debt, risking chaos in global markets. Absurd, shameful, incomprehensible? Indeed. But that’s the American way of government in this autumn of 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat