News / USA

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.
x
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.

You May Like

Video Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid