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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The ongoing debacle of our federal government shutdown is an embarrassment worldwide. America looks foolish, especially in light of the high-flown principles we espouse. Foreign allies and enemies watch as our democracy screeches to a halt and people’s basic needs are at risk. The shutdown bodes ill for our foreign policy and relationships with other nations as the U.S. government cavalierly commits injustices against its own people.
American democracy as a broad, abstract concept is viewed as so sacrosanct that people are afraid to criticize it. They prefer to find fault with individual policies, agencies and people. Americans are often afraid to admit that injustices are being committed in their own country – basic injustices that deprive us of human rights that we expect and deserve, as well as services we pay with our own tax money.
In particular, special interest groups and politicians use a manipulative strategy to paint any criticism of the system as somehow unpatriotic. This pressure not to criticize, as well as the all-or-nothing desire to avoid compromise, is a major flaw in American democracy. Rather than criticize policies and strive to produce better policies, politicians criticize each other and citizens criticize the politicians they elected, or the politicians they did not elect because they sat home rather than vote.
Hundreds of thousands of people depend on federal jobs and many look to the federal government for resources that support their health, well-being and safety. Americans, whether they are Democrat or Republican, have the right to expect those services to continue, barring any unexpected disaster or tragedy. Congressional disagreement over health care policy and the yearly budget is not a legitimate reason to hurt lives and take resources from the hands of those who need them.
Our Declaration of Independence states that Americans are entitled to “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We are now experiencing a “tyranny of the majority” in which the political process itself is the tyrant that limits the rights of Americans.
Our Founding Fathers were concerned that democracy gone wrong could exploit and suppress smaller interests. In the current impasse, Congress is infringing on the rights of the American people. In a country that focuses so much on the ideologies of democracy and freedom, many policies and actions have the effect of limiting personal freedom. Lack of health care, basic services and one’s employment are challenges to freedom.
Most of us are affected in some way by federal government’s reach in our lives. When the legislative system fails to work due to politics and stubborn adherence to principle, the American people who pay taxes and vote for policies and leaders become victims of their own government.
Regardless of representatives’ opinions on the Affordable Care Act or how government money should be spent, complete shutdown of services and jobs is an unjust policy by a government that regularly, and with condescension, presents itself as a model for justice around the world.
Moreover, Affordable Care is not an embryonic idea being circulated among congressional committees. It was passed by both houses of Congress, signed into law by President Obama and confirmed by the Supreme Court.
A government stalemate at this point is pure political show. Congress does not have the right to close the government for this length of time for the reasons that have transpired.
Clinical trials are on hold at the National Institutes of Health, in just one of many examples of how individual people are being affected and injured by this unjustified cessation of government.
With all the money and resources that are devoted yearly by federal, local and state governments to emergency management, disaster response and contingency operations for ‘what if’ scenarios, why the federal government would voluntarily impose a disaster on the American people is nonsensical.
Our members of Congress, who represent a country whose government is based on rule of law and justice, are hypocrites if they consciously allow politics and disagreement over policy to hurt innocent people. Even those senators and representatives who believe they are doing something good for the American people by way of voting are suffering from tunnel vision. This shutdown should not have happened.
In a time of recession, people need a regular paycheck and food on the table, not more uncertainty. Congress does not have the right to decide when families get to eat, who gets cancer treatment this week, or when or if people will receive their paychecks or veterans’ and disability payments. Congress is now directly undermining our economy.
Health care, social programs, law enforcement and schools all suffer from lack of funding and shutdown of services. What did the American people do to deserve this shutdown? We pay our taxes that fund our lawmakers’ salaries, not to mention the federal agencies that are responsible for so many aspects of life in the 50 states. Food inspection, nutrition programs, foster care payments, public safety and people’s livelihoods are at an abrupt standstill for no valid reason.
Individual funding bills being floated as an alternative are just a panacea for a larger problem, and one party does not have the right to choose which program is more important. Not at this point. The shutdown has become an issue of human rights and justice. A government that chooses a compromise solution is better than one that directly commits multiple simultaneous injustices against its own people, all because of political disagreement.
We are very fortunate in this country to have freedom of speech, which allows individual and collective expression of wants, needs and opinions. We are also blessed that we can elect our own leaders on the local, state and federal levels.
That luck runs out when special interest groups and unreasonable factions tyrannize the system by blocking it and preventing it from functioning. Our strength becomes our weakness. We have every freedom but nothing gets done.
Whether they think about it frequently or not, Americans put an immeasurable amount of trust in their government by allowing it to handle money, policies and services. Congress should live up to that public trust rather than violate democracy’s goal of allowing a just society to operate.
Alison Lake is The Atlantic Post’s Director and Executive Editor.