Lesson #25 : The Shutdown

Before delving into the quagmire of politics in the U.S.A., allow me to correct a point from Friday’s JuicyLesson (#23) entitled Comparative Politics, Part II. I stated that the Canadian Senate is legally entitled to delay the passage of money bills for a period of two months or so I thought at the time. That is incorrect. Our Senate does in fact possess a suspensive veto but this pertains to constitutional amendments and it is for a period of 180 days. A law passed in 1982, at the time when the BNA Act was patriated as the Canada Act by the federal Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, states that the Commons has the right to pass any amendment for a second time in the absence of Senate approval of that amendment after the 180-day period has elapsed. At that time, that amendment becomes law.

The Shutdown

What has happened in the United States is this: a while ago, the Senate and the American House of Representatives both passed the Affordable Care Act, aka Health Reform Act, Obamacare which established a Medicare system in the U.S. This Act had been proposed by the President. Now the government is shut down as a result of the House Republicans refusing to give their approval to the budget. Since Republicans form the majority in the House, the budget cannot pass.

House Republicans are balking and have stated that they will approve the budget if full implementation of the Affordable Care Act be delayed by a year. (Note: this Act was partly implemented last week when approximately fifty million Americans, who, for financial reasons for the most part never had health insurance, were finally enfranchised by the system. We’ll be looking at this in more detail possibly in tomorrow’s JuicyLesson (#26) but definitely in the coming week.)

So the shutdown occurred as a result of the failure of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to approve the budget. The G.O.P. (Grand Old Party, Republicans) has taken this tack as a way of pressuring the White House to make changes in the Health Reform Act, or to eliminate it completely even though, as I have already said, this Act had already been passed into law a few weeks ago.

Without budget approval, some federal government services are closed (ex. museums, national parks, libraries, etc. things that are free, and the workers providing these services as well as civilians working in the various national (federal) government departments have been furloughed, that is, laid off for the duration of this particular shutdown (there was another one in 2011). Further, the shutdown has delayed the payment of federal government subsidies and small business loans. Also, there is significant danger attached to a shutdown extending beyond October 17th, the American economy could go into severe recession as a result of the debt ceiling issue. (See below.)

Right now, the shutdown has gone on for a week; the stated reason for it is that some House Republicans want to de-fund ObamaCare, something which would be impossible to do right now if they went ahead and approved the budget. So they are refusing to pass the budget thus effectively scuttling their federal political system thereby shutting down the government in Washington and in all federal government offices across the country. This government is seventeen trillion dollars in debt which brings up the aforementioned debt ceiling. If the debt ceiling, which is part of the budget, is not raised by October 17th, ten days from now, the U.S. will be in default, that is it will not be able to pay it’s bills. One result of this would be that America’s credit rating would be revised downward, meaning that the U.S. would have to pay a higher rate of interest when it borrows money than it does now, something which is bound to negatively affect its entire economy, and, by extension, ours. When the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold.

One of the tea party Republican Senators, who has been a spokesman for the forces responsible for the shutdown, has stated that the debt ceiling is a way for Congress to rein in the President and the executive. He has also stated that the Affordable Care Act will cost people jobs, drive others from full-time to part-time employment, as well as causing a significant increase in the medical insurance premiums presently paid by certain segments of the population. One example this guy, Ted Cruz, gives is that a thirty-year old American single male will have to pay about two hundred percent more than he presently does for health insurance; however Cruz does not present any evidence which might compel people to take him and his arguments more seriously.

Americans are wealthier now than they have ever been. It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share.

Now the crux of this JuicyLesson in terms of our study of comparative politics: in the Canadian Parliamentary system, the executive branch – the P.M. and the cabinet – are part of the House of Commons which, together with our Senate, composes the legislative branch of our government. So here, in other words, the executive is part of the legislature. In the United States, it is not this way; that is because the President and the cabinet – their executive wing of government – is not part of their legislature.

Therefore in Canada, when there is a majority government in power which is most of the time, any law proposed by the executive will pretty well automatically become law. This is because the Prime Minister and the cabinet who are responsible for drawing up and proposing laws both come from the majority party (having seats and voting on laws in the Commons), with their party, by definition, having a majority – at least 50% plus one of the total seats. So since the Commons, being the elected body in our legislature, is responsible for passing laws, and since the party of the P.M. and the cabinet controls the Commons, there is no doubt that any bill presented by the executive for Commons’ approval will receive the number of votes required – at least 155 (a majority of the 308 total seats in the House Commons) – to guarantee its passage.

In the United States, the shutdown has been allowed to happen because there is no guarantee that a bill which has already been signed by the President will pass successfully through both their Senate and their House of Representatives. Obama is a Democrat as are the majority of Senate members while the House is controlled by Republicans. As occurs in most cases, the vote on the budget, which includes funding for Obamacare, proceeded along party lines with the Democratic (like the President) Senate passing it and the Republican House rejecting it – hence the governmental stalemate and consequent shutdown. Therefore voting in both parliamentary and presidential systems occurs along party lines, which has led to a big problem in the States where the passage of bills requires the approval of two different elected houses – in the present situation one of these houses, the Senate, has the same majority party as that from which the President comes and one, the House, does not.

This situation underlies a basic difference between the two systems coming into play from the perspective of the shutdown and which already has been alluded to; that pertains to the conflict which can evolve, and has in fact done so, between their executive and legislative branches over the passage of legislation. What has happened in the States cannot happen here when the executive and the legislature in our country both come from the majority party in the Commons. If the American executive emanates from the same party controlling both Houses of Congress, then chances are very good that laws proposed by the former will be approved by the latter.

There is no guarantee though that the U.S. President will come from the party which dominates each of their Houses; in a situation of majority government which is the situation in Canada most of the time, by definition the executive must come from the dominant party in the branch of our legislature that counts – the elected Lower House, the Commons. Since our Senate is not elected, it doesn’t have a genuine say in the legislative process thus avoiding the chance of a deadlock with the Commons, and by extension, the executive.


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