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Shutdowns and Polarisation in the US

Published 12 Dec 2023
Daniel Yang

With only a few hours to spare before 1 October 2023, the US Government avoided a federal shutdown in a last-minute deal between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. While both chambers of Congress agreed on a short-term deal that would ensure government funding until 17 November, this whole ordeal demonstrates the consequences of political polarisation in Washington today.

 A government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to approve funding for the federal government by the start of the new fiscal year on 1 October. Every year, Congress must approve appropriation bills that constitute the US Government’s budget and allocate funding for federal agencies.

A major consequence of a government shutdown is the ceasing of all “non-essential” government operations. While this may seem trivial on the surface, “non-essential” services are an important part of day-to-day life for many Americans. Without them, Americans would be faced with postal and airport delays, museum and national park closures, backlogs on immigration cases, and a loss of federal safety-net programs, especially those involving early childhood education and food assistance.

As a result of federal agencies ceasing most of their operations, those in the public service would face job insecurity, with the White House Office of Management and Budget estimating that 3.5 million federal employees would have to go without pay in the event of a government shutdown. Those in “essential” services such as law enforcement, border and prison guards, and air traffic controllers would have to continue going to work without pay.

 While government shutdowns were once rare, we have seen increasingly longer and more costly shutdowns over the last few decades.

In the weeks leading up to 1 October 2023, the US braced for yet another government shutdown, caused by a small faction of hard-right Republicans in Congress refusing to budge on their demand for spending cuts, which included no further aid for Ukraine in its ongoing conflict against Russia.

This begs the question – why are hard-right Republicans so willing to shut down the government? Well, this can partly be attributed to former President Donald Trump, who, despite leaving office nearly three years ago, has continued to have a firm grip on the Republican Party.

Before Trump, Republicans adopted much more of a Cold War mentality, remaining hawkish towards Russia and unyielding in their support for America’s allies. However, Trump’s embrace of Putin has made Republicans rethink America’s role in the world, with many opting for a foreign policy of isolationism.

It may also be argued that Republicans’ traditionally small government principles make them more willing to shut down the government than Democrats. This is especially the case when comparing this scenario to the shutdowns of 1995 and 2013, in which a Republican-controlled Congress was primarily responsible for shutting down the government due to ideological differences with a Democratic president.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy has had to lead a divided Republican conference during a time of intense political polarisation in Washington, while being criticised by many for being held hostage by hard-right Republicans, who have continuously threatened to oust him if he refuses to bend to their will.

Despite McCarthy continuing to bend over backwards for the hard-right time and time again over the course of his speakership, including his recent efforts to impeach President Joe Biden, a Democrat, the possibility of a government shutdown appeared to be the final straw in his relationship with them.

McCarthy’s reliance on Democratic support to pass a stopgap funding measure to avert a shutdown came as a shock to many, as this was a decision widely viewed as a politically suicidal move that could potentially cost him his speakership.

On a more optimistic note, McCarthy and the Democrats’ efforts in working together to prevent a government shutdown may be seen as something of a high point in an era of intense political polarisation in Washington. This whole ordeal demonstrates that, at the very least, America’s two major political parties can find common ground and work together when push comes to shove.

Daniel Yang is a second-year student at the University of New South Wales studying a Bachelor of Social Science with a concentration in Politics and International Relations. He was previously a Research & Strategy Associate for UNSW ASEANSoc. He also engaged in some volunteer work at One Can Grow, an education start-up focusing on teaching university students and working adults to discover their purpose and passions in their professional and personal lives. His main areas of interest include East and Southeast Asian politics, American foreign policy and domestic affairs, and global democracy and human rights challenges.

Daniel is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.