For the first time in 17 years the US government today is shut down—triggered once again by a policy dispute between the House of Representatives and the White House.

The policy issue is healthcare reform, specifically a Republican amendment to a federal government spending bill to delay the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) “individual mandate,” scheduled to take effect on January 1.

Of course the ACA requirement that everyone buy health insurance or pay a penalty tax remains controversial, with majorities of the public opposed. Nevertheless, the ACA is the law of the land and upheld last year by the US Supreme Court. While Republicans  would like to delay one of the law’s central tenets, Capitol Hill Democrats and President Obama himself staunchly defend them. Read more.

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Government Shutdown: Symptom or Disease?

Tue Oct 1, 2013

For the first time in 17 years the US government today is shut down—triggered once again by a policy dispute between the House of Representatives and the White House.

The policy issue is healthcare reform, specifically a Republican amendment to a federal government spending bill to delay the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) “individual mandate,” scheduled to take effect on January 1.

Of course the ACA requirement that everyone buy health insurance or pay a penalty tax remains controversial, with majorities of the public opposed. Nevertheless, the ACA is the law of the land and upheld last year by the US Supreme Court. While Republicans  would like to delay one of the law’s central tenets, Capitol Hill Democrats and President Obama himself staunchly defend them.

How will the government shutdown affect employers? How will it affect the economy? How will it ultimately affect healthcare reform implementation?

Much, of course, depends on the duration of this shutdown. Assuming lawmakers soon hammer out a short-term spending compromise the shutdown could be over in a few days with little effect except on furloughed government workers.

It’s even possible that a compromise plan could tweak the ACA, maybe to repeal controversial provisions like the medical devices tax or the Medicare Payment Advisory Board, both of which are opposed by Democrats as well as Republicans.

What seems certain, however, is that the White House and Congressional Democrats will not agree to any delays in central ACA elements like the individual mandate.

Moreover, as time goes on, and time in this case means 4-5 days, the government shutdown may increasingly be attributed to Republican intransigence—a Quixotic attempt to “Stop Obamacare” regardless of the cost to the economy or to vital government services. For this reason it seems unlikely that the shutdown will extend past this weekend.

But what about the larger significance? To use a healthcare metaphor, this government shutdown should be viewed as a symptom rather than the disease itself.

The fundamental problem is that the political chasm between President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats on one side and Republicans on the other, including in state and local governments, has widened to the point where bipartisan compromise is increasingly difficult on contentious issues.

While today’s shutdown battle will probably end in a few days the philosophical war will not end. Obamacare implementation will continue to be hotly contested; legislation to raise the public debt ceiling sometime this month will be hotly contested; the bill to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will be hotly contested; and tax reform to simplify the tax code will be hotly contested.

The government shutdown demonstrates that political gridlock in Washington DC has become the New Normal.