Let’s take an unbiased look at where we are, how we got there, and what citizens can do to get our representatives to compromise without having to shut down the government.

Since Congress originally shut down the government over the ACA (the Affordable Care Act), our first question should be, do we need the ACA? That question requires looking at US health care statistics compared to other countries to see how we are doing. The U.S. spends an average of $8,233 per person— two and a half times more on medical care than other OECD (Organization for Economic Development) countries; but we have fewer physicians per person on average, fewer hospital beds, and a shorter life span. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/10/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries.html). Our infant mortality rates are so high we rank 40th according to the WHO (World Heath Organization) survey—infant deaths for Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Norway, and Ireland are all half of the U.S. rate (Organization for Economic Development: www.americashealthrankings.org/Rankings/InternationalComparisons).The U.S. ranks among the worst OECD countries for child health and well being (http://www.americashealthrankings.org/Rankings/InternationalComparisons - _ftn12). We have been spending more than twice as much as other OECD countries for poorer results in our health care.

In 2011, 72% of Americans surveyed said our health care system needed a major over-haul (http://www.commonwealthfund.org/News/News-Releases/2011/Apr/72-Percent-of-Americans-Think-Health-Care-System-Needs-Major-Overhaul.aspx): Americans know the health care system was broken. In addition pre-ACA (Obamacare), 18% of GDP went to health care and would reach 34% by 2040: this is not sustainable for American citizens or American businesses. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/cea/TheEconomicCaseforHealthCareReform). For a long time, American business have been saying our health care expenses are not sustainable for them and are crippling their ability to compete on the international market. Both American citizens and the business community agreed that we could not maintain the status quo for health care.

In addition, we had 48-49.6 million American citizens without health care because 1) they have preexisting conditions and are, therefore, denied coverage, 2) they can’t afford it, or 3) they choose to play Russian-roulette, hoping they can make it without health care coverage; but when they can’t, the rest of us pay for it in the most expensive way possible—emergency room visits. (That’s why not having health insurance is not acceptable—just like driving a car without insurance is not acceptable.) Setting aside the moral issue of inadequate health care for our poor, and our children, and no health care for citizens with “preexisting conditions,” millions of citizens who don’t receive adequate health care pose a risk to the health of society at large when diseases and infections are not treated.

Because of health care shortages, the inability to get insurance for preexisting conditions, and economic necessity, the US needed a new health care model, which is what the ACA (Affordable Care Act) attempts to create by enrolling all Americans in order to make health care more affordable (i.e., more people are paying into the system with the ACA, thus making it more viable)—creating an individual mandate so all Americans can receive health care. Ironically, this idea of an individual health mandate was originally proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1989 as an alternative to single payer-health care; and Mitt Romney implemented it as governor of Massachusetts with the support of both Republicans and Democrats (http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2012/02/07/the-tortuous-conservative-history-of-the-individual-mandate/ ). The ACA’s individual health mandate was an idea initiated and implemented by conservatives and Republicans.

The conservative argument against the ACA is that it’s too expensive. However, the CBO estimates the ACA will save $84 billion between 2012-21 (http://www.cbo.gov/publication/43472) and over a trillion in the following decade (http://www.cbo.gov/publication/42520). The ACA will also help reduce the leading cause bankruptcies in the U.S.—medical bills (http://www.cnbc.com/id/100840148). Dismantling the ACA would also be extremely expensive—the CBO has determined that cutting the ACA will increase federal budget deficits by 6 billion over the 2011-2021 period (http://cbo.gov/publication/41472) and we would still be left with a broken, unmaintainable health care system. The other conservative argument against the bill is ideological—it is socialism; but the ACA involves private insurance companies, and as previously noted, the individual health mandate was originally a conservative response to a single payer system.

The Affordable Health Care Act was passed by Congress, signed into law by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court. The AMA and AARP endorsed the bill. There have been 43 unsuccessful attempts to undo the ACA (http://cornellsun.com/blog/2013/10/09/mandelblatt-how-the-mighty-have-fallen/). Our representatives seem to have forgotten about the BCA (Budget Control Act, a.k.a. Sequestration), the automatic budget-cutting plan which began to cut spending across the board—including health care—in March. Thanks to the BCA and other cuts, the U.S. actually has the lowest annual increases in spending for the past 60 years (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2012/may/23/facebook-posts/viral-facebook-post-says-barack-obama-has-lowest-s/).

If a party is repeatedly unable to undo a law, common sense would suggest members try to undo it later, as Republicans have historically done with opposition to Roe vs. Wade. However, Republicans chose to shut down the government to try to force concessions since they did not have the necessary votes. For the first two hundred years of our history, there were no government shutdowns. Ironically, the basis for a government shut-down is the 14th amendment, added after the Civil War in 1868, to validate all debt incurred by the U.S. Congress and to clarify the U.S. government was not responsible for Confederate debt—lost slaves, etc.; in other words, “to keep on faction of Congress from using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip” (www.nytimes.com/2013/10/08/opinion/nocera-why-the-debt-ceiling-matters.html?_r=0), which is, unfortunately, exactly what it is being used for now. The first government shutdown occurred under President Ford in 1976. There were three shutdowns under Carter, eight under Reagan, and two under Clinton (five days and twenty-one days). The shutdowns that occurred under Clinton damaged the Republican Party and its leader Newt Gingrich.

In 2011, there was another debt ceiling crisis resulting in the Budget Control Act of 2011(a.k.a.: Sequestration) signed on the very day the U.S. debt limit was reached. The result of that brinksmanship was that Wall Street dropped 2,000 points and Standard and Poor’s devalued the dollar making loans more expensive with an estimated total cost to taxpayers of 19 billion dollars over the next 10 years. You can add another 20 billion for this shutdown. It’s not just Americans who are sick of these stalemates, foreign countries are justifiably beginning to lose confidence in the dollar—seven countries are considering abandoning the dollar as the international currency or have already begun to do so— Saudi Arabia, S. Korea, Venezuela, Russia, Australia, Sudan, and Iran. (http://www.currencytrading.net/features/7-countries-considering-abandoni...) China has called for a “de-Americanized world”— abandoning the dollar as the world's currency of exchange. Who can blame them? Borrowing rates for some African countries have already increased and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) estimated that,” confusion over U.S. policy could wipe out trillions of dollars in bond investments around the world and spark the equivalent of a bank run in parts of the U.S. mortgage market” (www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/us-shutdown-makes-an-easy-target-as-diplomats-gather-in-washington/2013/10/09/dcdb45a0-3123-11e3-89ae-16e186e117d8_story.html). If you’ve been listening to C-Span today, you know how devastating the shutdown is for American businesses.

Government shutdowns do not occur in parliamentary democracies, because the legislative and the executive are not separate. However, there are democracies, like in Holland and Sweden, in which just one elected representative can shut down the government, and yet this has rarely happened (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-are-we-still-fighting-over-obamacare-because-our-system-was-designed-that-way/2013/10/04/0ad4aaf6-2b79-11e3-b139-029811dbb57f_story_1.html). What does this say about the differences between European and American attitudes about governance and the role of the individual with respect to society at large? American representatives are much more willing to shut down the government despite all the pain and suffering it causes American citizens and the damage it does to the economy. What does this say about empathy among our representatives?

As Roger Parloff notes, this type of confrontation “comes into play only when a critical mass of members of Congress are willing to see grievous harm come to our nation if their demands aren't met -- demands that cannot be achieved through ordinary democratic processes” (http://finance.fortune.cnn.com/2013/10/07/why-the-14th-amendment-matters-in-the-debt-ceiling-crisis/). In other words, there are representatives who care more about their ideology than their country.

Conservatives are motivated by their desire to save America’s credit. Shutting down the government to save the U.S. credit, however, is not a credible argument—it costs billions of dollars and undermines the value of the dollar. Despite this, radical conservatives are, ironically, ready, able, and willing to destroy the U.S. credit rating to save U.S. credit.

Economists now realize that nations cannot cut budgets too rapidly because if the economy is shut down too rapidly jobs are lost and the economy can actually collapse as we see in the case of Greece where severe economic cuts have devastated the economy. Economist David Stuckler and physician Sanjay Basu point out the psychological and physical impact of current austerity measures across the globe in their book, "The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills." The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the sequestration will slow our fragile economic recovery and cost 750,000 jobs (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/13/sequester-job-cuts_n_2678701.html). Additional cuts risk being more harmful than helpful. To occur smoothly, change has to be gradual.

Speaker Boehner has repeatedly maintained, “Americans do not want Obamacare;” (http://video.ap.org/Boehner-Americans-Dont-Want-Obamacare-25185140) however, a recent poll published in Forbes indicates that “only one third of Americans support repealing, defunding or delaying Obamacare” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2013/09/30/new-poll-only-one-third-of-americans-support-repealing-defunding-or-delaying-obamacare/). Mr. Boehner’s misinformation is very troubling and is reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” another mis-statement that was also widely believed. Americans are so poorly informed that interviews now reveal that some Americans are for the ACA but against Obamacare (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/some-americans-say-they-support-the-affordable-care-act-but-not-obamacare/280165/). Americans are going to have to work harder to understand their politics.

Radical Tea Party members currently dominate the Republican agenda. According to the Tea Party Bill of Rights: "We see a federal government which has grown too large, is unaccountable, and concentrates power in the hands of a few rather than in the hands of us, We the People" (http://www.teapartypatriots.org/tea-party-bill-of-rights/) —i.e., the U.S. is a democracy. If you speak with most conservatives about American democracy, however, they will quickly emphasize that the U.S. is not a pure democracy, but a republic, which is meant to protect the government against the fickle nature of "the people;" because the majority can trample the rights of minorities. Our present Congress has proven that in our republic, the minority can also trample the rights of the majority.

According to recent surveys, the Tea Party now represents only 8% of Americans. How is it possible that such a small minority is exerting such outsized influence on the entire Republican Party? When a tiny faction of extremists can force a government shutdown, do we still have a democratic republic or is power concentrated, as the Tea Party maintains "in the hands of the few" —"the few" being a handful of conservative extremists. According to the most recent poll, 87% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. As President Obama said, “this can’t continue because it looks like we don’t have our act together” (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/live-stream-president-obama-holds-news-conference-government-shutdown-article-1.1479547).

One of the most troubling aspects of all of this is that the Republicans, the party of fiscal responsibility, now have members saying it doesn’t matter if we default—which is like saying it doesn't matter if you fail to pay your mortgage or your credit card bill. President Obama explained that the U.S. does have to pay its bills as we learned the hard way the last time the government was shut down and the dollar was devalued. There is still the risk that the Fitch rating agency may devalue the dollar.

Conservatives frequently point out that James Madison warned against the instability of democracy (Federalist #10, 1787), but in the same paper Madison also warned that our elected representatives had to be drawn from "the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans and claim for their government the honorable title of republic." Currently the average member of the House has a net worth of $666,000 compared to the $120,000 of the average American family. Two-thirds of U.S. senators are millionaires (http://www.marketplace.org/topics/economy/globalist-quiz/how-many-millionaires-are-congress). According to Madison's definition, we no longer have republican representatives in either house but, rather, representation by a plutocracy.

According to the shocking study by Ariely and Norton (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/06/this-viral-video-is-right-we-need-to-worry-about-wealth-inequality/), Americans don't realize how much our economy has changed since the 1970s. Now the bottom 80% of Americans has only 7% of American wealth, whereas the top 1 % has 40% of the nation's wealth. The bottom 80% of Americans own only a half a percent of the nation's stocks and bonds, whereas the top 1% owns 50% of the nation's stocks and bonds. Today the top 1% takes home 25% of the national income whereas in 1970, the top 1% took home 3% of the national wealth. Income for the bottom 80 % of Americans has steadily declined over the years. Only the top 10% of the country is financially better off; 90% of the country is worse off. The average employee —not the janitor, the average employee —of a company has to work one month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour. The U.S. has the worst income inequality in the developed world (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/15/income-inequality-wall-street_n_3762422.html). Maybe it’s time to reconsider taxing the top 1%.

What these abstract numbers translate to according to the World Hunger Education Service is 46.9 million Americans in poverty (one household in seven), up from 37.3 million in 2007—the largest number in 53 years since poverty rates have been published (http://catholictradition.org/). According to this study 49.9 million Americans have no health insurance. Of these 46.9 million Americans in poverty, 75% are families with children and 1/3 are elderly or disabled. 15.9 million American children don’t get enough to eat everyday (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx). According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2012, 16.1 million or approximately 22 percent of children in the U.S. lived in poverty. A new study released today reveals even worse numbers—a majority of students in public schools in the South and West are poor. In Mississippi, it's 71% (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/10/health-costs-how-the-us-compares-with-other-countries.html). Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, quoted a study by Keltner and Kraus that wealthy people do not have as much emotional intelligence as the less powerful and the poor: wealthy people also, therefore, have less empathy. As Goleman states,“This has profound implications for societal behavior and government policy” (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/05/rich-people-just-care-less/).

Ideology and narcissism has replaced reason and empathy. How can we fix this? It won’t be easy because with gerrymandering, politicians don’t have to run for office anymore. They come from red or blue districts. This petrifaction of the political process is nefarious because candidates don’t have to think about policy, solutions, or compromise. Gerrymandering creates one-dimensional candidates who lack the ability to think about issues in complex ways—which is what we need if we are going to find the best solutions for our problems. (It would help if more Americans voted in primaries to help eliminate the most radical candidates.)

Shutting down the government is not acceptable; it’s a distortion of the 14th amendment. There is a possible solution, however, and it’s a solution Americans are suggesting more and more vociferously. Americans can set up petitions and collect signatures. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander”: instead of shutting down the government, we can shut down representatives’ salaries—no budget, no pay. Sharing the burden might help our representatives develop some empathy. In states that don’t accept citizens’ paper petitions, the petitions can be put online, to put pressure on representatives. Letters need to be sent to state and national representatives and to state governors.

Our representatives will only take us seriously if we make them realize we are serious. This means all of us have to make an effort, sign petitions, write letters, and make phone calls. Otherwise, government shutdowns will just keep happening. We can’t run our nation this way.

The Internet has a national petition you can sign, requesting a pay freeze for congress during the government shutdown. It should have millions of signatures, not just 68, 137. (Unfortunately, it does not request an end to government shutdowns. We need a new petition for that.) Please sign the national petition and spread the word. (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/489/539/284/demand-a-pay-freeze-for-congress-during-government-shutdown/?z00m=20644244) Every state should have a petition to send to your state’s representatives. All of us should write to our governors. If the American people really want to stop government shutdowns, we can; but we will all have to act. Please sign the petition, spread the word, and start one for your own state. Thank you.

About the Author

Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman Ph.D.

Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman, Ph.D., teaches in the New Directions writing program of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis.

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