Kevin Sweitzer: Dems wrong in government shutdown fight

Sunday, January 21, 2018 - 5:12pm

At its basic level, the role of our American government is to serve as the voice of the people. They fundraise from the American people through taxation, and use those funds in the best interest of the country. Despite the last year’s whirlwind of political news, the essential functions of government have remained working to serve the American people throughout all of the turmoil in Washington, D.C.. Last Friday’s government shutdown was a failure of that critical responsibility, and Congressional Democrats are largely to blame.

Congressional Democrats bemoaned the 2013 suspension of federal services, and their cries now ring hypocritically hollow against their actions in leading the U.S. Government to a crisis point. In 2013, Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, halted government operations for 16 days in an attempt to pull funding for the unpopular — at the time — Affordable Care Act. In sacrificing the moral high ground, Republicans cemented the ACA’s place in public policy — and public opinion.

Now, Congressional Democrats have taken the same shameful stance, and have driven the fight over the budget off the edge of a dangerous cliff. In a Thursday morning tweet, President Donald Trump seemed to confuse his stance on the issue of the Children's Health Insurance Program — which finds its funding up for renewal during this budget fight — and demanded that Congress find a lasting solution. Republicans, who proposed a short-term extension of CHIP, can’t agree with Democrats, who want a permanent funding solution for CHIP. By shutting down the government, Democrats run the risk of having CHIP funding follow in the footsteps of the ACA opposition. In that case, 1.7 million children in 20 states and D.C., will lose their health insurance. The elevation of CHIP funding to a political level now risks the permanent defunding of the program, while failing the most underserved children in our country in hopes of scoring political points.

The consequences of this shutdown can’t yet be quantified. Thousands of federal workers will be furloughed starting today, and some of the nation’s critical infrastructure and services are now shut off. Standard & Poor’s estimate that the 2013 government shutdown cost the U.S. economy $24 billion. This is a cost that nobody — even the most outspoken Democrat on Capitol Hill — wants for the American economy. Shutting down the government is almost certain to usher in a period of unfiltered chaos for public sector workers and the millions of Americans who rely on the federal government for their economic well-being.

Aside from the financial ramifications, the political ramifications of partially closing the nation’s government are even higher. The shutdown in 1995 led to massive public disdain for Republicans, and 2013’s shutdown ushered in the lowest approval rating of the Republican party in 20 years. Democrats are currently riding a massive wave of positive public opinion — brought on by the unpopularity of the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans’ inability to make actionable progress on electorally-mandated policy proposals. Flushing that positive public opinion down the drain to prove a point to Republican leadership isn’t just a bad political move — it’s a failure of their most basic responsibilities as our elected officials.

Even more shameful than the Democrats’ inaction on the budget is their insistence on using the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as a hostage in their negotiations to keep the government open. This program, which prevents the deportation of certain undocumented immigrants who were brought by parents to the United States as minors, is a policy that affects 800,000 young people. A judge in California already temporarily blocked implementation of the DACA repeal, and young immigrants deserve better than to have their lives used as a bargaining chip by people claiming to protect them. A solution to DACA exists without funding the border wall — as President Trump insists — and without shutting down the government. Gambling the fate of young immigrants, including many of our fellow University of Michigan classmates, on Republicans’ willingness to do the right thing is never a safe bet, and is a bet that will likely harm everyone involved.

The way forward for the progressive policies that America desperately needs is through the retention of public opinion behind the Democrats. These policies also have no chance of implementation if the government isn’t running. Democrats’ best plan isn’t to stoop to the level of Ted Cruz in 2013 or Newt Gingrich in 1995, but rather to do their constitutionally-mandated duty to fund the federal government, while working with Congressional Republicans to ensure that people protected under DACA will be able to remain in the United States and that the CHIP program can be funded in the long-run. The American people deserve better than a government shutdown, and Children's Health Care coverage and the fate of DACA recipients should never be used as a bargaining chip in a political fight.

Kevin Sweitzer can be reached at ksweitz@umich.edu.