Last Thursday, sixteen days into a federal government shutdown, Congress passed a temporary budget that re-opened the government and raised the debt ceiling until January of 2014. This agreement sent federal employees back to work and diverted a potential default on national debt, and that is inarguably a good thing. However, for those of us that watched in dismay as partisan politics left our country uncertain, our economy weakened, and our government in disarray, there are larger lessons to be learned from the last few weeks.
First, I think it’s important to be clear on just why the government was shut down and why we walked right up to the brink of default. What were conservative leaders demanding? At the top of that list of demands was repealing, delaying, or de-funding the Affordable Care Act.
Since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it has accomplished the following:
- It has begun the process of extending health care coverage to 33 million Americans, who, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, will be newly covered by 2022.
- Prohibits insurance companies from discriminating or denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
- Allows parents to keep their kids on their insurance until the age of 26.
- Requires new health plans to provide preventive care, including immunizations, annual exams for women, birth control, cancer and diabetes screenings, and well child visits, at no cost. In Montana, an estimated 82,000 women received preventive care without a co-pay in 2011 or 2012, thanks to the ACA.
But despite these positive changes, conservative leaders in Congress demanded that we do away with health care reform, and they did so by refusing to pass a budget or raise the debt limit, routine acts of Congress that are the very core of their responsibilities as elected representatives.
So, lesson number one from the shutdown: the Affordable Care Act is law. It is a concrete, positive step forward for health care reform. It is improving people’s lives. And it is not going away.
Also not going away, unfortunately, are the negotiations and debates around our federal budget that we saw rage on in Washington over the last month. The current compromise lasts only until January of 2014, and then we must once again address both the federal budget and the debt limit. The President and Congress have agreed to begin negotiations, and herein lies lesson number two: we must create and pass a budget that strengthens our economy, invests in broadly supported public programs and services, and above all does not increase inequality or poverty.
Of course, there is much at stake in the coming budget negotiations. We are currently under sequestration, across the board cuts to both defense and non-defense discretionary budgets. These cuts took effect in March and over the last seven months have devastated social services, worsened unemployment, and slowed economic growth. Congress must work to replace sequestration with a balanced and sustainable package that raises revenue and protects vulnerable communities.
And so we get to lesson number three: whatever the policy we’re debating, we cannot allow the current negotiating climate to continue. Conservative leaders in Congress engineered a shutdown of the federal government and threatened default despite widespread public disapproval and clear negative consequences across the country. Their actions were an unnecessary and aggressive tactic in a war on the idea that government – any government – can be a force for good. We live in a time when so many families and communities are struggling and we need effective, proactive policy solutions.
The good news, post-shutdown, is that there is in fact a clear path forward. There are avenues that allow us to pass a progressive budget, replace sequestration, and avoid shutdowns and hostage-taking tactics. We hope that our representatives in Congress choose to walk that path in the coming months.
I’m Sarah Howell with Montana Women Vote. Thanks for listening and have a terrific weekend.