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By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

A week in America | 13 October 2023

This week Martin looks at the crisis on Capitol Hill as the US Government stumbles towards a shutdown no-one can see a way out of...

People already don’t express much confidence in their politicians.

Whether it is the eye-rolling which occurs when people imagine a 2024 Presidential race between Octogenarian serial snoozer Joe Biden and Septuagenarian fraudster Donald Trump, or the glassy-eyed void when you enquire if anyone here can name any of the senior politicians, including the Prime Minister, running the UK. (The majority of the public I bump into still think Boris is in charge and have never heard of Kier Starmer or Rachel Reeves).

With such indifference to those who seek our votes every four years, you may expect the threat of the U.S.’s political leaders to not turn up for work in the weeks ahead to be a cause for celebration.

But in fact, the consequence of a possible ‘government shutdown’ is now scaring the heck out of people, especially those who suddenly realise – despite grumbling about ‘the man’ – their income and quality of life is closely linked to a fully-functioning federal government and its myriad of agencies.

Many Americans remember all too well the last time the Government shutdown back in 2018 when the Trump administration wanted to spend billions on building a further 234 miles of border wall and Congress said ‘no’.

The stand off lasted 35 days and government contractors and employees weren’t paid, air traffic controllers weren’t hired, and millions of federal workers were ‘furloughed’ – a polite term for ‘no work, no pay’.

This time, the shutdown is less about divisive policies and much more about the failings of politics in Washington.

The House of Representatives has been without a Speaker for days now after the previous incumbent Kevin McCarthy was booted out in a late-night coup orchestrated by Florida Representative and all-round weird-fish Matt Gaetz.

Earlier this year, US federal officials announced they will not charge Gaetz with sex-trafficking crimes after atwo-year investigation failed to determine whether the congressman had crossed state or international borders to have sex with underage girls.

Just a year after being elected to Congress, Gaetz brought a right-wing Holocaust denier to attend the State of the Union address. He later tried to expel two fathers who lost children in a mass shooting from a hearing after they objected to claims he made about gun control, before telling a rally of right-wing students that abortion supporters were less likely to get pregnant because they were unattractive.

Gaetz is a far-right populist who has positioned himself as an ‘uber-Trumper’ just as former Trump cheerleader Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has fallen out of Orange Don’s favour. Whether this is a play for Gaetz to move from the House of Reps (the lower chamber) to challenge for a Senate Seat (the upper chamber) or to even boot DeSantis out of the Governor’s mansion is unclear.

It is probably just another day in Florida politics and its reputation as showbusiness for the ugly.

But with the House of Representatives left without a Speaker, the process of law making, spending, and approving budgets slowly grinds to a halt.

While Gaetz was the architect of the coup, easily finding a bunch of other hard right Congressmen and women to vote with him to depose McCarthy, he was surprisingly sufficiently self-aware to realise he wasn’t popular enough to gather the 217 votes required to pick up the gavel.

Problem is, it doesn’t appear anyone else is that popular either.

The Republicans hold a slender majority in the 435 voting-seat House of Representatives – 221 GOP seats to the Democrats 212 with 2 seats currently vacant – but they are at war with each other as much as they are across the aisle.

So, without any unity candidate appearing, the likelihood of a continuation of the stand off and impasse in Washington is set to drag on.

Without the approval of Congress, payments to and through the various federal agencies will dry up. While social security pension payments and Medicare are protected, food stamps and other welfare benefits will not be received by many of the most vulnerable in our communities. While there will probably be a hurried attempt to find a work-around to ensure U.S. military salaries are paid, the same is unlikely to occur to keep national parks, forests, and monuments open, including many of the national cultural and environmental attractions visitors to the United States enjoy – The Smithsonian, Statue of Liberty, Yosemite Park etc.

Having ousted McCarthy without a clear successor or a path to deliver him or her is, frankly, amateur hour in politics.

So, the powerbrokers in the Republican Party are looking to find a candidate they can pull the warring factions behind. The winner of the GOP primary, Louisiana legislator Steve Scalise – considered a moderate by many – is not attracting the support of the Trump wing of the party, whose candidate Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, he defeated in the poll.

While the hardliners in the GOP disliked McCarthy for his willingness to do deals with the Biden White House and Democrats in Congress, many who voted to get him out of office are now ruing the shortsightedness of their decision.

Across Capitol Hill, corridors and lobbies favoured by the Republicans are chiming to the sound of groups and caucuses wondering if they could trust Patrick McHenry (R-N.C) who was installed as House Speaker Pro Tempore – intended to hold the fort for the few moments between the departure of one Speaker and the vote to appoint the next – with additional powers to divert the seemingly inevitable shutdown of vital services.

Others are even wondering about the ability to call the whole thing a tragic mistake and try and re-instate McCarthy.

Democrats are caught between enjoying the schadenfreude of their political nemeses squirming in discomfort, with their own dilemmas and the perception they are part of the problem too.

Part of the reason McCarthy was spiked by his own side was his deals with the White House to avoid the US defaulting on its financial obligations, to protect Medicaid and Social Security spending, and pass an order to provide enough funding to keep the government functioning until Nov 17th.

A full spending bill is required to run the nation and Republicans wanted swingeing spending cuts included and even future tax cuts promised, knowing full-well a Democrat President wasn’t going to agree to that.

They gambled if they went to the brink, something would crack. It did, to get his stop gap emergency order through, Biden had to forgo some additional spending commitments – most noticeably the $6billion which was promised to Ukraine to continue their fight against Russian aggressors. Very few outside of the hardcore Freedom Caucus would consider this any kind of victory.

And with Hamas having triggered a terror war with Israel, Congress would normally have taken strong action in support of America’s oldest ally in the Middle East. The current impasse, however, prevents the US from even formally issuing a statement of sympathy and support for Israel, let alone providing vital financial and military support in the face of hostility not just from terror attacks from Gaza but from Hezbollah on Israel’s Lebanon border, and sabre-rattling noises from sworn-enemies in Tehran.

What happens next is unclear.

The Democrats will continue to point the finger at the Republicans, the search for a unity candidate will go on, and lawmakers on both sides will be under pressure to resolve this by Friday 17th November.

That date is critical because the sight of Congressmen and women heading home for their Thanksgiving Holidays while millions of federal employees have no pay checks, and the 1 in 5 of America’s children who are recipients of food stamps are left hungry, will do nothing to rebuild trust with our politicians.

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Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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