I began this month's column shortly after midnight Oct. 1, with the news media reporting on the shutdown of our government as it happened. Sadly, much of the corporate, mainstream media's reporting prior to the shutdown and immediately after was the typical he-said-she-said coverage, as if shutting down our government is a legitimate legislative strategy or consistent with the rule of law.
Within the next 24 hours, however, I was encouraged that even the mainstream media began digging deeper, perhaps forced into real journalism by the outrage of an overwhelming majority of the American people of both political parties.
In a CBS/New York Times poll in the week before the shutdown, 80 percent of respondents said it would be unacceptable for lawmakers to threaten a shutdown to achieve their goals. Though Republicans and the media have focused on the goal of defunding Obamacare, the continuing budget resolution from the House of Representatives contained no fewer than 21 different Republican demands, from cutting Social Security and food aid for the poor to eliminating birth control in health insurance coverage.
The effects of the shutdown could include paychecks delayed for more than 2 million military personnel and veterans' benefits delayed, as well as 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay, applications halted for Social Security and other benefits for seniors, closure of more than 400 national parks, museums and zoos, small-business lending programs stopped and clinical services and food benefits denied for nearly 9 million pregnant women, new mothers and young children.
One of the strange things about this government shutdown is that extremists in the GOP have gotten their way on fiscal matters, and yet they still aren't satisfied. The continuing resolution that Democrats have agreed to accept continues the sequester and is within a few billion dollars of Rep. Paul Ryan's radical budget, and that resolution would last only until Nov. 1.
The shutdown, moreover, is but a preliminary scrimmage in the war that will be fought over raising the debt ceiling by Oct. 17, with the threat of financial default by the U.S. government. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has warned Congress that default would be catastrophic. We face the prospect of turning an anemic recovery into a full-blown recession that spreads worldwide.
The extremist, tea party wing of the GOP, which includes Congressmen Chris Collins and Tom Reid from our part of New York, has revealed itself as a fraud. Originally thought by many to be an expression of populist outrage at big financial institutions and the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street, it has elected the candidates funded by Wall Street and billionaires like Sheldon Alderson and the Koch brothers. Though tea party members wore 18th-century costumes of the founding fathers, they campaigned on goals that included shutting down our government. Many are gleeful that they have done just that. The deficits that were the legacy of George W. Bush didn't bother them, nor did Bush's Troubled Asset Relief Program, but they hate Barack Obama even though he has cut the Bush deficits in half.
Hard-line pro-business conservatives have opposed all liberal legislation that moved our country forward. They opposed ending child labor, setting a minimum wage and requiring an eight-hour workday. They opposed Social Security and Medicare. They opposed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Many of these laws, passed by Congress and upheld by the courts, have been modified over time through the legislative process. But these laws were not nullified by threats of shutting down the government or defaulting on the full faith and credit of the United States, blowing up our economy and causing extreme hardship for millions of Americans.
Our nation has a legislative process for changing the law. And Section 4 of the Constitution's 14th Amendment states in part, "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, ... shall not be questioned." But those on the extreme right have gone so far as to attack our government at its foundations, and they are now almost indistinguishable from anarchists. If terrorists were threatening to shut down our government, destroy its credit and sabotage our economy, we would deploy our military to stop them. The extremists, including Reid and Collins, must be purged from government.
It is bad enough that Republicans' intellectually dishonest austerity policies have starved our country of the public investment necessary for economic recovery and shared prosperity. The sequester was and is a disastrous policy that according to a number of economic calculations has reduced growth by nearly a percentage point. Shutting down the government further weakens demand, reduces employment and upsets markets. With median household incomes and real wages declining for years, businesses are maintaining or improving the bottom line by cutting "costs," by which I mean good jobs, as demand is stagnant. This is the opposite of the virtuous cycle.
The AFL-CIO has made it crystal clear to the White House and Congress that there should be no shutdown and no negotiation over the debt ceiling, the sequester must be repealed and there must be no cuts to earned benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. Tax subsidies for outsourcing jobs and for billion-dollar industries must end, and vital services for American families, including food stamps, must be protected.
According to multiple media sources, a majority of the House would vote for a clean budget resolution without anti-Obamacare blackmail, but the Republican speaker insists on the Hastert Rule, which allows a vote only when a majority of Republicans is in favor. Like the filibuster in the Senate, this has allowed a minority to obstruct a vote even on the most crucial legislation.
The bright side of what is going on is people's increasing disgust with right-wing extremists. The tea party-like its ideological ancestor in the 19th century, the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothing Party-is on its way out. Its demise cannot come too soon.
James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.
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