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Readers Ask, VOA Answers: The Government Shutdown

FILE - The US flag flies next to the Capitol in Washington, as Congress and the Obama Administration continue work to raise the debt ceiling.FILE - The US flag flies next to the Capitol in Washington, as Congress and the Obama Administration continue work to raise the debt ceiling.
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FILE - The US flag flies next to the Capitol in Washington, as Congress and the Obama Administration continue work to raise the debt ceiling.
FILE - The US flag flies next to the Capitol in Washington, as Congress and the Obama Administration continue work to raise the debt ceiling.
VOA readers from around the world are asking questions about the U.S. government shutdown that, frankly, we’ve been wondering about, too. Here are some answers to questions we received in the comments sections of articles about the shutdown.

Q: How come the president of the most powerful country in the world is so helpless? (Australia)

A: Just because you’re the president of the United States doesn’t mean you have unlimited power. The American colonists who wrote the Constitution, were influenced by their experience in England where the king held enormous power. Colonists separated power among three branches of government: the legislative [Congress], the executive [president], and the judiciary [courts]. Each branch has a different role and helps keep the power of the other branches in check.

The authors of the Constitution also included a feature of the British parliamentary system that was meant to limit the king’s power to tax. It gives the “power of the purse" to the two houses of Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives, in particular.

"All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.” - U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 7, clause 1

Q: If the government shutdown continues for a long time, is there any provision in the U.S. Constitution to allow the government to function for a specific period through presidential ordinances [as in many other democracies] to be ratified later by the Congress? (India)

A: First, it's important to know the government is only partially shut down. Programs and services deemed essential to national security, the safety of human life or the protection of property are still operating because many government employees were not furloughed.

That said, the president could invoke the equivalent of a state of emergency and declare that his job is to do whatever is necessary to preserve the union, even if he risks impeachment.

President Abraham Lincoln did this during the Civil War, when the north and south were on the verge of formally splitting.

That’s unlikely to happen in this situation, according to Sanford Levinson, a liberal constitutional law professor and author of Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance.

“I think we are getting… into what has to be a very scary territory because for the argument to work, the president has to argue that we’re at the edge of a cliff, and that he has to do extraordinary things that aren’t within the usual ambit (area) of presidential power in order to save us from going over,” said Levinson.

Q: Republicans and Democrats blame each other for the chaos. Is there a way to ascertain what actually the basic cause of this mess is? (Nigeria)

A: The disputes reflect political polarization that has been growing for at least 20 years, and intensified recently.  

Republicans say the president and his Democratic party allies are trying to expand the role of government too much. They object to the new health care insurance plan that’s supposed to cover people who don’t get health insurance through their employers. The new plan subsidizes insurance for poor people and requires everyone to have health insurance or pay a fine. Republicans call this an intrusion into people’s personal lives.

Democrats say the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, was passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, survived a Supreme Court challenge and was a key issue in the last presidential campaign. The Republican presidential candidate vowed to repeal it, but he lost. So Democrats say the issue is settled.  

The House has passed resolutions to fund the government if Obamacare is delayed or defunded. The Senate has passed resolutions funding the government without changing Obamacare. To pass, both houses have to approve identical legislation.

Q: Maybe there is need to amend the political system? (Nigeria)

A: The U.S. government is not supposed to function like this, nor has it done so for at least 150 years.

"Our system gives substantial power and rights to minority parties, but with the understanding that they will cooperate in performing the basic functions of government," says legal scholar Garrett Epps, author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution. "The refusal to do so on the part of the House Republicans has brought our country into an emergency situation which may possibly become catastrophic if they do not decide to fund the repayment of the debt."

Levinson suggested the U.S. government has grown out of the Constitution that framed it. He said reform could begin slowly with minor changes, like adopting a new rule that said the speaker of the House of Representatives cannot be a member of the House and must be chosen by two-thirds of the representatives.

Then, Levinson said, the speaker “will basically be a fine, upstanding citizen whose principal concern will be the effective operation of the House without attention to raw partisan politics.”

A major change would entail getting rid of the separation of powers system and replacing it with a parliamentary system.

“We have parliamentary style parties that are highly ideological, with no overlap between them,” said Levinson “This is a disaster in a separation of powers, checks and balances system, where they can basically make it impossible for the national government to be remotely effective.”

Q: Why are so many people opposed to providing basic healthcare to uninsured people through government subsidies under Obamacare law?

A: Obamacare, formally known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was passed in 2010 and is due to go into effect next year. The government-subsidized program will make insurance accessible to millions of Americans who previously could not afford it, and will expand preventive care services.

Critics of the plan generally are people who advocate small government. Democracy Corps, a liberal-leaning polling firm, released a study of Republican voters this week that showed the battle over Obamacare is related to Republicans’ fear of a changing society.

“They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support,” the study finds.

But Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, calls Obamacare the “Un-affordable care act” because they predict that insurance costs will rise and employers will cut hours for some workers to avoid certain provisions of the law.

In short, the fight over the health care act, and the budget, is also a fight over the political shape of the nation.

Q: What is the Tea Party? Who are these few Tea Party Congressmen bringing U.S. government’s work to a standstill? If they are against government, why are they in the parliament?

A: The name “Tea Party” is a reference to an act of protest by colonial Americans who snuck on a British ship and threw tea overboard to protest a tax on tea.

Today’s Tea Party calls itself a grassroots movement advocating fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution and limited government. Most congressmen who are associated with the Tea Party are Republicans.

According to John Jaggers, an activist with the Northern Virginia Tea Party, the group is not a Republican phenomenon because it was formed during the presidency of Republican George W. Bush. He said the Tea Party would like to see the Republican Party fight for small government, as it has in the past.

Jaggers said the Tea Party’s opposition to Obamacare stems from the fact that the group is “dead set” against progressivism and Obamacare represents a long held desire among progressives to “take control of the nation’s healthcare.”

He said the closure of the national parks during the current government shutdown is an example of why Obamacare should be repealed.

“If you're going to deny the use of parks, what are they going to do with healthcare?” he said. “If they're going to use government to control service delivery, and you hand over all delivery to government, what’s going to stop the government from using that power to force you to do what the government wants?”

The Tea Party is influential because they appeal to the most conservative active part of the Republican base, who are very politically active. Republican members of Congress are mostly conservatives, but they worry if they don’t follow the Tea Party agenda, they could face a strong challenge from an even more conservative candidate in the primary election which selects the party’s candidates. These primary elections are critical because most members of Congress come from districts dominated by one party or the other. That means the winner of the primary in these "safe" districts is almost certain to win the general election.

Q: If the U.S. government’s function stops like this, is there any danger of dictatorship in America? (Pakistan)

A: Polls show many Americans are troubled by the direction of the country, but there is no evidence that they want to change the form of government.

"Americans have lived for more than 200 years under the same Constitution, and possess a deep emotional attachment to it, both in its mode of limiting the power of government generally and in its explicit guarantee of a palette of civil liberties, including free speech and assembly and the writ of habeas corpus," said Epps.

The most common seed of dictatorship and instability is a military coup, followed by a declaration of emergency and martial law. The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea of civilian control of the military, so it would take an ideological revolution among members of the military to violate their oaths of loyalty to the Constitution and the government it sets up.

That is not to say that civil disorder could not happen, but America’s commitment to democratic rule is profound, said Epps.

"Events may bruise it; the situation may become dangerous or unbalanced; but thus far, at least since the surrender [of rebel forces during the American Civil War] at Appotmattox in 1865, civil order in the nation as a whole has never been in question. I see no reason to imagine a different outcome of the current situation," he said.

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