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

    Vietnam Mulls Tough Measures for ‘Misbehaving’ Chinese Tourists

    Move comes after footage surfaced online of Chinese travelers harassing a banana hawker in Da Nang

    Pakistan Social Media Star's Honor Killing Fuels Debate

    Qandeel Baloch's murder puts spotlight on deadly tradition and other mistreatment of women

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Borderi
    X
    July 22, 2016 12:30 AM
    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Poor Residents in Cleveland Not Feeling High Hopes of Republican Convention

    With the Republican Party's National Convention underway in Cleveland, Ohio, delegates and visitors are gathered in the host city's downtown - waiting to hear from the party's presidential candidate, Donald Trump. But a few kilometers from the convention's venue, Cleveland's poorest residents are not convinced Trump or his policies will make a difference in their lives. VOA's Ramon Taylor spoke with some of these residents as well as some of the Republican delegates and filed this report.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video With Yosemite as Backdrop, Obama Praises National Parks

    Last month, President Barack Obama and his family visited some of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Using the majestic backdrop of a towering waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park, Obama praised the national park system which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. He talked about the importance of America’s “national treasures” and the need to protect them from climate change and other threats. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Counter-Islamic State Coalition Plots Next Steps

    As momentum shifts against Islamic State in Iraq, discussions are taking place about the next steps for driving the terrorist group from its final strongholds. Secretary of State John Kerry is hosting a counter-IS meeting at the State Department, a day after defense ministers from more than 30 countries reviewed and agreed upon a course of action. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.
    Video

    Video Russia's Participation at Brazil Olympic Games Still In Question

    The International Olympic Committee has delayed a decision on whether to ban all Russian teams from competing in next month's Olympic Games in Brazil over allegations of an elaborate doping scheme. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently released an independent report alleging widespread doping by Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. So far, only Russian track and field athletes have been barred from the Summer Games in Brazil. VOA's Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.
    Video

    Video Millennials Could Determine Who Wins Race to White House

    With only four months to go until Americans elect a new president, one group of voters is getting a lot more attention these days: those ages 18 to 35, a generation known as millennials. It’s a demographic that some analysts say could have the power to decide the 2016 election. But a lot depends on whether they actually turn out to vote. VOA’s Alexa Lamanna reports.
    Video

    Video Number of Syrian Refugees Arriving in US Jumps

    The United States is committed to resettling 85,000 refugees from around the world by October. Of that number, 10,000 will come from Syria and already some 4,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the United States, many of them settling in the state of Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports from Chicago, their arrival is not the end of a difficult journey to find peace and stability.
    Video

    Video Rio’s Trams Await Olympic Tourists

    Over the past century, many cities around the world replaced electric trams, prone to breakdowns and backups, with faster and more spacious buses. But for some reason restored antique trams are a huge tourist attraction. So it’s no wonder the authorities in Rio de Janeiro are busy restoring their city’s old tram line ahead of the Summer Olympic Games. VOA’ George Putic reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora