Legislating abstraction

As Congress hurled the United States toward a government shutdown, talk of just what that means eclipsed the chatter that would otherwise have dominated such a beautiful fall weekend. Conversations about vibrant foliage, football scores and vulnerable tomato plants were replaced with shared – or conflicting – frustration and concern about what on Earth Congress is doing with respect to running the country. The answer, depressingly, is not much.

Rather than executing the relatively mundane work that is its primary function – namely spending taxpayers’ money to provide the services we all rely upon – Congress has instead busied itself with attaching grand (or not so much) political statements to every essential action. So here we are again: Entrenched and enraged and for little more than an opportunity to point fingers, stomp feet and clench fists.

What is at stake in this latest congressional temper tantrum about the Affordable Care Act is some of the government’s semi-essential functioning. By linking a spending provision to defunding Obamacare or delaying some of its provisions, the U.S. House has triggered the shutdown showdown that will have implications far and wide – but they will be predominantly political at the end of the day.

While prison doors will not be flung open this morning, nor taxes stop being collected, things will slow down significantly until the latest impasse is settled. National parks will close, as will the Smithsonian museums. Flood response help – essential to those Front Range communities still in active clean-up mode after last month’s storms – could be delayed, according to Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, lengthening an already difficult recovery process. Routine food safety inspections could cease, but not meat inspections, so we can rest easy after eating steak. NASA will remain open, while the U.S. Geological Survey will have to take a break. Workers deemed “nonessential” – about three-quarters of a million of them, by CNN estimates – will be furloughed, while the remaining 3.3 million “essential” government workers will still be on duty. We will still get our mail, military members will still be asked to show up for work, but their pay might be delayed. Not so, members of Congress, whose checks will continue to arrive, though at this point it is difficult to discern how they are “essential” to government functioning.

Instead, these elected officials of ours are taking way too much time and creating far too much heat over what is – sadly for some and happily for many others – spilled milk. Obamacare, despite the irrational wishes of enough House Republicans to create this mess, passed Congress, survived a U.S. Supreme Court challenge and is being implemented. Starting today, Americans can purchase health-insurance coverage via exchanges that allow for comparison shopping. The law is not perfect – far from it – but it addresses some significant and vexing challenges for Americans who have previously lacked health-care coverage or the means to secure it. This, because it was championed and passed by their Democratic nemesis, is giving too many Republicans irrational agita. The result is embarrassing and ugly.

There will ultimately be a resolution of this impasse, the government will resume its operations in full, and Obamacare will not have suffered a delay for all the kvetching. In the meantime, much will be lost – in terms of trust in our lawmakers’ ability to behave as adults, accept setbacks and act with the greater good in mind. What a waste of perfectly good energy.

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