If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, what is the opposite of “progress”?

National parks across the USA have been shut as a result of the shutdown.

This is just one of the jokes that have been flying around during the last few weeks of political scandal and outrage in the United States of America. If you were to listen to political comedians like John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or the fantastic John Oliver, it would indeed sound like a huge joke. The internet, of course, exploded in its usual charming mess of ignorance, sarcasm and cat memes, producing gems like this, this, and the ever hilarious grumpy cat, combining almost everything loved by the internet in one succinct picture.

But the Government Shutdown of 2013 is serious business indeed. Whispers of the shutdown have been echoing as far back as January 2013, but the problem is that because of the complicated and unique system of politics in the United States it’s difficult to understand the direct cause of the shutdown.

So, what did cause the shutdown? The very question opens an ugly can of worms, and demonstrates some fundamental problems within the American political system.

The shutdown revolves primarily around the budget. To put it simply, the House of Representatives and the Senate played hot potato with a budget resolution, until they ran out of time. The deadline for passing the budget passed, and on the 1st of October 2013, after almost 10 days of watching the bill move like a ball in a tennis match, the US Federal government ran out of money. All government functions need money, that’s just common sense, but the disagreement described above stemmed the flow of money, and that’s never a good thing.

So, why did Congress refuse to pass the bill? That comes down to Obamacare, more correctly known as the Affordable Care Act. To put it very simply, Obamacare will create a system whereby employers pay for their employees’ healthcare, instead of leaving them to the mercies of insurance companies. Everyone agrees that universal healthcare is good, but not everyone agrees on how it’s been implemented, or how much money it will cost.

The more radical Republican factions have an ideological opposition to anything proposed by President Obama, but considering that Senator Mitt Romney himself implemented it in Massachusetts, it’s been incredibly difficult to dislodge as ‘un-American’. They have even gone as far as to say that Obamacare is “the single most existential threat to the United States since Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.” It’s common sense that nothing good is ever free, but unfortunately common sense has never been that common.

The opposition took the legislation to court on the basis that it was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court had declared it acceptable, and it passed despite these protests. However, clearly all was not well because the budget that would have been passed by the House of Representatives on the 20th of September would have completely defunded Obamacare. Senate rewrote the budget to continue funding Obamacare, and the House of Representatives objected, even though the Supreme Court had declared it constitutional. This is the ‘political stalemate’ which led to the shutdown. It is the same stalemate which continues today, preventing the parties from reconciling and passing a working budget to get their country back on track.

“Surely someone’s got to be reasonable, right? Surely someone in the House of Representatives can see sense, right?” I hear you all scream.

Well, you’re right. There are those who would compromise, who would allow the budget to pass for the greater good. There are those who would acknowledge that this is madness, but the problem is that it’s election time in November. The Republican Party is at war with itself, because the more radical members of the party are baying for the blood of their more moderate colleagues who would compromise. A Republican who suggested that they negotiate with Obama, or the Senate regarding the Affordable Care Act would be thrown to the wolves in his own pack, who would decry him as a “traitor”, and his or her re-election prospects would be void.There is a clash between party loyalty and common sense.

Anyone can see this shutdown is insane, but do we actually know the consequences of the shutdown? Yes, we do, but it’s being kept really quiet because the last thing the US government needs is a lower public opinions poll. Do public opinion polls even go into the negatives?

Against all probabilities, they just might, if the public got their hands on the figures. The numbers of federal government employees, and employees of their subsidiary bodies who find themselves suddenly suspended is around 700,000. Note, that when I say suspended, I mean unemployed, without any income. You can see why this would be a problem.

Not only does that number include employees of government agencies like the Department of Labour (13,000), the Environmental Protection Agency (17,000), the Department of Commerce (40,200), Homeland Security (31,300) and the Department of Defence (400,000), but it also includes employees of bodies which depend significantly on government funding.

If you were to go on holiday to the United States, today, you wouldn’t be able to visit any Smithsonian Institutes in Washington, nor would you be able to visit the Zoo. It’s a small mercy that the animals will still be fed, considering that people who work there will not be being paid. All National Parks will shut down and you wouldn’t be able to visit the Statue of Liberty, Yosemite National Park, or if you had planned to, Alcatraz, the real life rough-equivalent of Azkaban.

This is assuming you’d even managed to get into the United States during the shutdown. Passport Offices around the US will close and all your overseas visa applications will go unprocessed.

City governments could find themselves in dire straits as well – if they shut down, garbage disposal services would follow. Libraries would be closed, as would the Department of Motor Vehicles. Parking tickets would not be issued (yay!) but neither would tax concessions (not so yay).

The already floundering NASA will suffer significantly, as it will have to let go 97% of its employees. Housing loans would go unprocessed, and the 1.4 million active-duty personnel abroad would go unpaid.

Still, there’s a little comfort out there. Someone’s overseeing the nuclear arsenal, and controlling air traffic control. If worst comes to worst and you get bored in Washington with all the National Monuments being closed, you’d at least be able to exercise in the Congress Gym, surrounded by the very people who ruined your American holiday.

Post Script

As with all news, this story has been changing. On the 17th of October the budget ceiling was raised, which means the government will have money to attempt to resume business. The numbers of the suspended and unemployed have changed, but are only marginally less dire. Things are far from the status quo, and there is a way to go before things can be considered sorted. We can only hope that the situation had already hit rock-bottom, and is now on the way up.

This article was written with the gracious assistance of, and invaluable input from Dr. Thom Brooks, Director of Undergraduate Studies of Durham Law School.

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