Commentary & Opinion
3:50 pm
Mon October 7, 2013

Blair Horner: The Government Shuts Down, Will The Nation Default?

The big news of the past week has been the shutdown of the federal government.  The rationale for the gridlock has been well reported:  The House Republican Congressional leadership has decided to block funding of the federal government as its leverage to defund, cripple or delay implementation of the health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act.

Ironically, funding for the Affordable Care Act – which opened its doors on October 1st – is not considered part of the federal budget and so is not technically affected by the government shutdown.  But the consequences of the shutdown are real: the families of roughly 800,000 federal workers have lost a paycheck, and services have been affected – from the closing of national parks to the curtailment of health programs run by the National Institutes of Health.

While we can all make it for weeks without access to federal parks, the impact of the shutdown on the NIH could harm people’s health.  You see, the NIH runs clinical trials – those are for drugs that are still in the experimental stage.  Often, these drugs are used by sick patients who need them as part of the trial, and sometimes they really.  With the federal shutdown, those individuals who have serious illnesses and whose only hope is to get into a clinical trial cannot get access.

During the first day of the shutdown, 200 patients – including 30 children – who would have been accepted into clinical trials were turned away.  For some of these people, the federal shutdown could harm their health, or worse.

So the House leadership appears to offer two options to the President and Senate: either the nation continues to hurt hundreds of thousands of families or it must delay or end the nation’s effort to offer health insurance to tens of millions of needy Americans.  As absurd as that sounds, those are the choices.

Yet the decision to hold the funding of the federal government hostage to the expansion of health insurance to the uninsured is part of a carefully developed – if cynical – plan.

According to the New York Times, at the end of 2012 a coalition of conservative activists developed the strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act.

The Times reported that this effort was a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law.  Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed organization.

The billionaire Koch brothers have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort.  A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight.

In the three years since passage of the Affordable Care Act, Tea Party-inspired groups have mobilized, aided by a financing network that continues to grow, both in its complexity and the sheer amount of money that flows through it.

The Times’s review of tax records, campaign finance reports and corporate filings found that hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and spent since 2012 by organizations, many of them loosely connected, to fight the law designed to offer health insurance to the uninsured.

Unlike the last government shutdown during the Clinton Administration, this latest effort is fueled by hundreds of millions of dollars tied to groups across the nation.  It is that well-orchestrated campaign that bolsters the power of the roughly 80 members of the House of Representatives who have led the effort to force a government shutdown.

The scariest part of this story is that the nation’s debt limit is just a week or so away.  Unless the Congress approves an increase in the nation’s debt, the federal government will run out of money in mid-October.  Failing to pay the nation’s debts could plunge the world into a new financial crisis.

As unthinkable as that is, it is precisely the product of hard-core conservative opposition to the federal health care reform law.  If they succeed either tens of millions will lose access to coverage or the world may plunge into economic chaos.

Here’s hoping the big donors to this effort understand that worldwide financial chaos is not in their self-interest and the pull the plug on this dangerous effort.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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