Unable or unwilling to reach an agreement to extend government spending, the U.S. Congress has provoked a government shutdown. It will quickly “furlough” 800,000 government workers, keep others working without pay, and threaten cuts to some essential social programs like Women and Infants Care and institutions like the Centers for Disease Control, already diminished by the sequester.
The conflict in Congress pits the Tea Party Republicans against the Obama administration, with the other Republicans — so far — going along with their most reactionary and intransigent wing. The Tea Party dregs in Congress seem not to worry that they could pay a political price if their obstructionism slows growth in the already fragile capitalist economy — as it may if there is an extended shutdown.
This grouping, funded by ultraright billionaires like the Koch brothers, has especially targeted the new health-care act. Obamacare has many flaws and complications that were created when the Democrats let the pharmaceutical, medical and insurance industries design it. Had the new plan simply extended Medicare to the entire population, it would have aroused medical industry opposition but been extremely popular with the working class, just as Medicare and Social Security are.
The administration has taken steps to keep the repressive machinery of the state working. Obama signed a bill just before the shutdown to continue to pay all active-duty military. Drones that fire rockets in Pakistan and Yemen will still be funded, as will missiles pointed at Damascus, Syria. Veterans, on the other hand, will experience delays in receiving benefits, and 400,000 civilian employees of the Pentagon will be sent on unpaid vacations.
Although the focus of the Republican attack is on the Affordable Care Act, the real issue is about the budget and how it is funded. Though they disagree about whether some taxes should be increased, who should be taxed, or how quickly programs should be cut, the Tea Party, the Republicans and the Democrats themselves share a basic program. They agree in principle that the budget deficit should be minimized and that the government’s priority should be to continue paying interest on bank loans while funding the military machine.
As a result, they cut the deficit by attacking all existing programs that either provide benefits to the workers and poor — like food stamps, WIC, school lunches — or that monitor the crimes of the bosses — like food inspection and environmental monitoring — or that provide essential services like the Post Office and the Centers for Disease Control. If these cuts happen, the government becomes, even more than now, a tool solely of the banks and the super-rich.
These attacks make the Tea Party and Republicans obvious enemies of the poor and the workers. Yet the Democratic Party, just as it gave away the best parts of a universal health-care plan, can be expected to concede parts of the programs that aid the workers, even Social Security and Medicare.
The lesson of the shutdown, then, is the need for workers, communities and all poor people to organize independently of the big capitalist political parties to defend their class interests, such as by organizing people’s and workers’ assemblies.