Government shutdowns have political consequences

Over the last two weeks, we have witnessed veterans being told they have to wait to hear back about their applications for benefits. Come Nov. 1, the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be able to process pension checks for more than five million vets and widows of veterans. And, of course we all have heard of the shameful cutoff of death benefits to families of troops recently killed in combat in Afghanistan. All of this happening while partisan rhetoric—on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—continues.

While this “partial” government shutdown has caused headaches for hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers, private contractors, and state and local governments that depend on Uncle Sam, something far worse is just days away. Thursday, Oct. 17, is the deadline by which Congress must raise the government’s borrowing limit. In other words, the U.S. credit card is about to max out and unless Congress authorizes raising the limit—also called the debt ceiling—America will not have enough cash on hand to pay all of its outstanding bills. This is perhaps the biggest threat to the U.S. economy and the global economy. If America should default on its obligations, it would also wreck our standing worldwide. The Dow has already taken hits in a jittery recovery, and a debt crisis would move the U.S., fiscally, from its regular hospital room to the ICU.

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The Treasury Department is already using emergency measures to pay the bills and by Thursday, says Secretary Jack Lew, we will be down to $30 billion in cash on hand. Mark Patterson, a former Treasury chief of staff under President Obama, equates that to “probably $30 in your checkbook.”

Over the weekend, talks between the White House and the GOP-led House collapsed. So now Senate leaders are taking up the charge to find a way out of this mess. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the fact that he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) were talking should bring “comfort” to us. Moderate Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said on CNN’s‘ State of the Union’ Sunday that they had “sparked a dialogue.”  What we really need is less talk and more action.

While Republicans and Democrats continue to wage this high-stakes game of chicken, it’s imperative that both parties recognize this ongoing brinksmanship has political consequences. Congressional midterm elections are a year away, and what happens over the current budget battles will likely play a role in determining the outcome. Even reliably safe GOP congressional districts, thanks to gerrymandering, could be in jeopardy in 2014.

Just look at the numbers. Based on polling, the GOP is getting blasted because of the shutdown. Polls released by CBS, FOX, NBC and the Wall Street Journal show the ongoing government shutdown and debt-limit standoff has badly damaged the Republican Party and that a majority of Americans blame the GOP.  How bad? The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows 53 percent blame congressional Republicans while only 31 percent blame President Obama.

Moreover, the rift within the GOP is reaching fevered pitch as moderate Senate Republicans such as John McCain (Ariz.) and Collins have openly revolted against tea party conservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Mike Lee (Utah). While the GOP "Civil War" is underway, Democrats are not out of the woods. They must defend 21 of the 35 seats up for grabs next year.

If the shutdown continues—which from my perch it appears this could go on through Thanksgiving—Democrats and Republicans may well find that voters will pay them back at the polls next year. They won’t be furloughing members of Congress, they’ll be firing them.

Ham is author of the bestselling book, The GOP Civil War: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party.

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