Shutdown literacy: Five questions and answers you need to know

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 | 6:14 p.m. CDT; updated 9:49 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 10, 2013

COLUMBIA — Wednesday marks day nine of the federal government shutdown, and no solution seems imminent.

Yet confusion remains among the public about what's really going on in Washington. We've tackled five common shutdown questions, and provided some clarity to shutdown politics.

Contact your representatives

Here's how to let your representatives in Washington, D.C., know how you feel about the shutdown:

1) If you don't know who your representative is, use this tool:

2) There should be an "email this person" button underneath their name

3) Using the form provided, express your opinion

4) Be sure to submit or send it when you're done

Senate contacts:

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
506 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO)
260 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Are you seeing the effects of the shutdown?

Some readers told us last week that the government shutdown wasn't affecting them immediately but that it would if it continued. Well, we've entered week two, and the Missourian wants to know whether it has disrupted your life. Are there websites or information that you can't access? Offices or institutions you need closed that are closed? Checks that aren't coming in the mail? In your work or in your personal life, what are the effects?

To share your story, email or call the newsroom at 882-5720 and ask for the editor on duty.

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1) Why did the government shut down?

Listening to politicians and talk show hosts, it would be easy to get the impression that the partial shutdown is over disagreements on funding the Affordable Care Act.

But Lael Keiser, a political science professor at MU, said the act ties into the budget debate in a different way. She said shutting down government has no effect on funding for the health care law, but Republicans are using the shutdown to draw attention to it.

"It's more of a bargaining chip," Keiser said. "This particular fight is not connected to the Affordable Care Act because the Affordable Care Act is funded. The government shutdown is not affecting the Affordable Care Act."

Here's how budgets are supposed to be passed: First, the president submits a budget. Taking that spending plan into consideration, the House and the Senate each pass a budget resolution, which is mostly ideas or goals, then work together to reconcile differences. Once the House and the Senate pass appropriations bills with specific allocation amounts, the president signs those bills and the budget is considered passed.

In the past four years, however, Congress has ignored or outright rejected the president's budget by wide margins rather than considering it and creating their own bills. For fiscal 2013, President Barack Obama's budget was rejected 99-0 in the Senate and 414-0 in the House.

To fund the government, Congress has passed continuing resolutions, bills that provide funding at previously approved or currently proposed levels. Once the two houses of Congress agree on a continuing resolution, the president signs it. No official budget is passed, but the government is funded.

This time around, that didn't even happen.

In 2013, the House Committee on the Budget submitted a budget resolution with Republican-backed goals such as reducing entitlement spending, which easily passed the Republican-controlled House but failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate. The Senate Budget Committee created a budget resolution with Democrat-backed initiatives such as increased taxes, which was approved by the Senate but denied by the House. Obama submitted his budget two months later than required by law, so neither congressional branch took action on it.

The House then introduced several continuing resolutions, all of which included efforts to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act, or remove key parts, such as the requirement that every American have health insurance. The Senate voted against each of the House resolutions, instead asking it to vote on a "clean" continuing resolution that funded the government at proposed spending levels, including funding for the health care law. The House has yet to hold that vote.

The government shut down because a new fiscal year began Oct. 1 without any funding bill being passed.

2) What conditions lead to this problem?

Two big ones: The structure of the U.S. government and increased polarization between the two main parties.

"This is not the way most countries work," Marvin Overby, a political science professor at MU, said. "This is one of the prices we pay for having our system of separate institutions that share power."

Most developed countries operate in a parliamentary system, in which one party or coalition controls the legislature, which selects the governmental leader, Overby said. But American democracy is based on a system of checks and balances, which limits the power of a single party or branch of government.

Jonathan Krieckhaus, another MU political science professor, said the U.S. is in a "Constitutionally-created crisis" and that the true problem is the structure of American government itself and the people who elected a split government.

Krieckhaus also said that the divide between the country's two main parties has never been greater post-World War II, and that Democrats and Republicans are both resolved to come out ahead on a major issue like the shutdown.

"With a presidential system, you can't have too much polarization," Krieckhaus said. "The only way to make good policy in American-style government is if agreements or middle ground can be reached, and that's not happening often enough right now."

Although the parties themselves have become more partisan, Overby said that such differences are built into American democracy, and although the differences are more pronounced than in the past, they're not new.

"This is what you get when you have divided government," Overby said. "Our system of government was not set up to work smoothly, efficiently and easily. It was set up to allow just this sort of sand-in-the-gears of the system."

3) What's the historical precedent for a shutdown?

There have been 17 previous shutdowns in U.S. history, and all have occurred in the past 50 years. But there are few similarities between past shutdowns and the current one.

In five shutdowns before 1981, no services were lost as agencies remained open under the assumption that funding would eventually arrive because the federal government wanted their services to continue. After 1981, only the two shutdowns led by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich lasted longer than three days.

The Gingrich-era shutdowns involved a united Republican Congress taking a stand against the power of a Democratic president. During those negotiations, then-President Bill Clinton and Gingrich met often and worked toward resolution on issues yet to be passed into law.

The current shutdown involves one segment of one party controlling one house of one branch of government — the tea party and other ultra-conservatives — grinding government services to a halt. During these negotiations, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Obama have refused to discuss anything, and the debate is over legislation that has already been passed.

"It's the first time to my knowledge a branch of government has played chicken over past legislation," Krieckhaus said.

4) What are the long-term effects of the shutdown?

Many people do not think the shutdown has directly affected them yet. But Keiser said many might not know that they are at risk of being affected, and the shutdown will affect more people over time.

"If the shutdown goes on for long enough, constituents are going to be affected whether they're Republicans or Democrats," Keiser said. "The costs are imposed on everyone. Eventually, we'll all feel it."

The bigger issue, Krieckhaus said, is what the government shutdown means moving forward.

"It's dangerous because it implies we're not going to be able to agree on anything or fulfill our obligations," Krieckhaus said. "Reneging on your promises is something that happens in the Third World, not typically in developed nations."

Keiser said the precedent being set by Republicans is problematic. She said shutting down the government to force changes in an existing law, because the party does not agree with it, leads to an ineffective government.

"Using the budget in this way is, I think, for either party, a risky thing to do long-term," Keiser said. "If it becomes commonplace, it would be a disaster."

5) What can I do to help end the shutdown?

Keiser said that though one person contacting his or her representative will not make a difference, making a call or sending an email is worth your time because when many people do, policy change happens.

"When representatives start to get flooded with calls, they start paying attention," Keiser said. "If constituents do contact them, it does have an impact."

Even though there is no immediate solution to the shutdown, Krieckhaus said there is still hope a deal can be reached. He said people should consider setting aside partisan talking points to come to a solution that's amicable for all.

"The problems we face are solvable," Krieckhaus said. "The obstacle is political polarization, and the solution requires compromise."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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