The unproductive shutdown

For many Americans, the shutdown of the federal government has few, if any, immediate consequences. The mail will still be delivered, taxes will be owed, and many other services will continue for a time (even as some basic functions, from keeping Head Start classrooms open to processing some veterans' benefits, may not). But here in Maryland, the furlough of 124,000 civilian government workers will be felt most acutely, as the cost in state and local tax collections alone is projected to be about $5 million per day.

Such shutdowns have happened before, and the nation has survived. But the circumstances of this particular failure in Washington are more embarrassing than most: It had all the legitimacy of a criminal enterprise as tea party extremists elevated their hatred of Obamacare above the best interests of the country and their duties as legislators.

It would be tempting, of course, to write that this impasse — the inability to agree on a continuing resolution to fund government past the end of the fiscal year — was the fault of Democrats and Republicans alike. But that would be like blaming the hostages for causing the perpetrator to put a gun to their heads. As President Barack Obama noted, he and Congressional Democrats put forward no agenda other than keeping the government operating temporarily at current levels.

House Republicans set conditions, not Senate Democrats. And it's not even clear how many in the GOP truly wanted this to happen. Conventional wisdom is that a so-called "clean" resolution funding government would have passed on a bipartisan vote if it had been allowed on the floor by House Speaker John Boehner — or perhaps by the man who seemed to have the most influence on the chamber's agenda in recent days, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

So what is the Republican end game in all this? As Americans become increasingly annoyed, inconvenienced and angry, will they relent? In slightly over two weeks, the debt ceiling must be raised or the nation could face default; will this drag on until then with much-greater stakes? After all, failure to raise the debt ceiling would be no mere inconvenience but could help push the country, perhaps even the world, into another economic recession.

Do House leaders think they can push the blame on President Obama? Some have already tried, but it sounds suspiciously like shoplifters blaming store owners for having so much tempting merchandise lying about. National polls show the public isn't buying it — most Americans didn't want the government shuttered over Obamacare, and Congressional Republicans have a double-digit lead over the White House when it comes to the public's choice for who most deserves the most blame.

Even the usual anti-government crowd can't find much comfort in this, as sending federal workers home isn't saving anybody any money. The last time the federal government had an extended shutdown — for 21 days in late 1995 to early 1996 — it cost something on the order of $2 billion. What an extraordinary waste of money, particularly at a time when conservatives claim to be worried about the deficit.

We don't always agree with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but he was correct Tuesday when he called on the House to put federal workers back on the job — and then take the budget to conference committee without a "gun to the head." To negotiate now would be to reward the hostage-takers for their unreasonable behavior. The Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, and Republicans need to give up their obsession with it unless, of course, they had something more productive to offer than a one-year delay.

The GOP idea that withdrawing themselves, their staff, the president and top political appointees from their current employer-provided health insurance somehow makes the law more "fair" is also a bit irrational. The point of Obamacare is to preserve employer-subsidized health insurance whenever possible. It's not a carve-out if the federal government continues to pay three-fourths of the health insurance premium (a ratio many private employers offer, too).

All that is accomplished by the current shutdown is to harm 800,000 innocent people in the federal workforce and take about $1 billion from the U.S. economy each week at a time when the country can ill-afford the loss. It's clear House Republicans will have to relent eventually. One can only hope House leaders will come to their senses sooner rather than later.

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