The October 2013 US government shut down exposed a significant weakness of our Constitutional republic. The consequences were felt locally, nationally and globally. Basically, our democratic system allowed a tiny fraction of a political opposition party to dictate whether the US would pay its ‘non essential’ government workers. Even if those workers are ultimately essential to our nation’s security and protecting or saving the lives of individual Americans.
As Congress debated and another debt ceiling approached this tiny minority put the US economy at risk of default. A default that most political and economic experts believed would have had catastrophic effects on the US economy and ultimately the world economy. The global effect would have fueled the lawlessness that gives further advantage to terrorists and global organized crime which are increasingly working together to weaken US power.
The minor structural factor of the US Constitution (based on the concept of independence) that allows political parties to gerrymander Congressional districts virtually ensures a particular party will win the District election. This legal rule pits members of the same party against each other and leads to favoring the purist party ideologue. This closed system strongly encourages more radical posturing. While it may hurt that party in the long run, the short term consequence can produce politics and politicians that push extremist policy and put the whole world at risk. And, the rest of the world has no vote how it turns out.
The bad news is that Americans rarely change their political structures without the motivation of actual pain and suffering here at home.
So aside from the real national security risks listed below that were directly associated with the government shut down, the global consequences could have been worse.
1. On the Wednesday after the shutdown US intelligence officials warned that the government shutdown was making our nation more vulnerable to terrorist attacks and other security risks by forcing US spy agencies to send tens of thousands of employees home. The Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that furloughs of civilian employees could have an ‘insidious’ effect, degrading intelligence-gathering capabilities in ways that may not become fully clear for weeks or months. He went on to testify that “As each day goes by, the impact and the jeopardy to the safety and security of this country will increase.” Key intelligence officers considered “Essential” will be kept in place but Clapper’s office indicated that 72% of the intelligence community work force has been sent home creating holes in virtually every agency and department.
2. Iran Sanctions weakened. The under-secretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, says the ability to enforce sanctions on Iran has been significantly hampered. "Note, our ability to do that, to enforce sanctions, to stop sanction evaders, is being hampered significantly by the shutdown," she told the Senate foreign relations committee on October 3rd. The Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury team responsible for overseeing the sanctions, was "utterly depleted", she said.
3. Embassy security: Intelligence staff in the US provide information that means as much or more to embassy staff abroad as the uniformed Marines that guard the embassy gates. One aspect of the security failure at the US facility in Benghazi, Libya which killed 4 Americans was a lack of sufficient intelligence.
4. Chemical security: The Obama administration added closure of the Homeland Security Department's chemical security program to its list of reasons why Congress should end the partial government shutdown. The Chemical Facilities Anti-terrorism Standards (CFATS) program, which is in the middle of a multi-year effort to approve security plans for high risk chemical plants in the United States, ceased most operations last week as a result of the congressional stalemate over fiscal 2014 spending and health-care reform, Global Security Newswire reported. Congress has yet to permanently authorize the CFATS program, so the failure to pass a spending bill means the initiative not only lacks funds but also the legal authority to operate. "This underscores the need for the shutdown to end, and for Congress to pass a permanent reauthorization of the CFATS program," DHS spokesman Clark Stevens said in a statement to GSN. Stevens confirmed that employees of the Infrastructure Security Compliance Division, which runs the chemical security program, have been furloughed.
5. Economic Security: If the shutdown lasts long enough it could crimple the US economy (the source of our military funding and educational foundation that provides us with troops and advanced technologies). The two-and-a-half-week government shutdown probably reduced quarterly G.D.P. growth by about 0.3 per cent. Hopefully, the same mentality won’t lead to our nation’s debt default which would be catastrophic to our prosperity, freedom and security.
6. Bio Security: NIH/CDC non-essential employees who help monitor disease outbreaks here and abroad are vital to early detection and response of pandemics or bioterrorist events. With the speed of global air travel a matter of a few hours delay in detection of a pathogen could mean tens of thousands if not millions sick and/or dying.
7. Space security: Are NASA employees working to detect near earth objects similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs…considered nonessential employees? The amazing answer is ‘yes’.
8. Food security: More Americans die from food contamination each year than from the attacks on 9-11. Food inspectors are helpful in keeping those numbers down and from detecting any possible intentional contamination of the food we consume. Nearly half of all Americans ingest legal drugs. Inspections and speedier drug approval also saves American lives.
9. Maintaining alliances: Individual nations cannot effectively cope with any global threat (terrorism, pandemics, chem/bio/cyber WMD attacks, climate change, economic instability, genocide) without strong international cooperation. Obama was scheduled to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bali next week but on Thursday the White House canceled it’s plans for the trip. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Bali a few days ahead of time. Obama excluded China from his planned 12 nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. Xi pushed his his rival pact, which included China and 15 other nations but not the US. Regional trade deals, offsetting Chinese power and it’s territorial claims (Japan, Taiwan, Burma…) in the region and other foreign policy developments in US interest in that part of the world will have to wait.
Ultimately, this flaw in our constitutional frame work should be reversed. But even if our nation strives for a more perfect union, political extremists anywhere in the world increasingly have the power to influence the economic, political, health, security, environmental and legal aspects of our nation. Neither the national or the global lack of accountability is unlikely to be addressed anytime soon. And we all live with increased risks because of it.