By Mick Krever, CNN
NASA’s unmanned Voyager 2 spacecraft may have put it best when it “tweeted” from beyond the solar system: “Farewell, humans. Sort it out yourselves.”
Most employees at NASA are now among the million U.S. government employees on forced leave because congress has failed to pass a spending bill, forcing a shutdown.
The world is watching in seeming disbelief. So, is America a failed state?
Not quite, but the apparent failure of the American congress to govern certainly raises the question. If we were covering some of the far-flung failing states we often do, we’d know just how to put it.
“The capital’s rival clans find themselves at an impasse, unable to agree on a measure that will allow the American state to carry out its most basic functions. … The current crisis has raised questions in the international community about the regime’s ability to govern this complex nation of 300 million people.”
That, of course, was a satirical post; it appeared in the online magazine Slate, but it just about fits.
A small cabal of representatives in the House have blocked passage of a government spending bill, and are threatening to default on America’s debts, because they disagree with a bill, Obamacare, passed by congress three years ago.
At stake, unlike a “Banana Republic” is the world’s largest economy and the currency of global trade.
Not to mention those out of work, medical projects halted, and the lost revenue from tourists – Yosemite National Park, now shuttered, draws in $350 million a year to the local economy.
“I think the rest of the world thinks it’s so incredible they don’t believe it,” British broadcaster and publisher Andrew Neil told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. “We’re used to dysfunctional governments in Italy or Greece or some banana republic. But a basic function of government to set tax and spend and agree on a budget.”
The current crisis, the failure to pass a budget that forced a shutdown, is nothing next to the possibility that America would default on its debts.
“The U.S. bonds are by far the most important in the world – they’re the benchmark for the rest of our borrowing in the world,” Neil said. “If the America, of all countries, can’t service it, we are potentially into a financial crisis much bigger than the one sparked off by Lehman Brothers.”
It is a scary potential, but some House republicans seem all too willing to flirt with disaster – all in the name of defunding Obamacare and reducing spending.
Ryan Lizza, CNN contributor and Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, said that the root cause is the seemingly ludicrous idea among some conservatives that a default – which has never before happened – would be good, because it would spark a debate about spending.
“If you read the conservative press closely,” Lizza told Amanpour, “there’s an argument that has taken hold among some of these folks that a default on the debt would not be as catastrophic as some people think would it be.”
So how can it come to this?
It would certainly be going too far to call America a “failed state,” but it is no doubt in the back of the minds of many around the world.
“The issue isn’t really healthcare – it’s much more fundamental than that,” Neil told Amanpour.
“Americans love their constitution. They think it’s one of the greatest political constructions the world has ever known – and it is,” he said. “But it has the complicated system of checks and balances, which if it doesn’t operate leads to a rigor mortis that would be inconceivable in a parliamentary democracy like Germany or the United Kingdom.”
Neil was a White House correspondent in the 1980s when Tipp O’Neill (a “liberal democrat out of the Boston machine”) was speaker of the House and Ronald Reagan (a “radical Republican from California”) was president.
But “none of this ever happened,” he told Amanpour, “because they had a basic respect for each other and they knew they had to compromise in the end.”
The group of radical Republicans currently in the House, he said, seem to have no interest in doing so.
Lizza told Amanpour that those Republicans forced their Republican leader, John Boehner, to take this course of action.
“Eighty very conservative Republicans,” Lizza told Amanpour, “who won their districts by an average of thirty four points – in other words they don’t care about Democrats opposing them, they only care about Republicans primarying them – they forced Boehner to do this.”
Indeed, Neil agreed, the Tea Party Republicans hate Boehner “almost as much” as they hate President Obama.
Boehner has blamed the president for failing to negotiate, but Obama has rejected that wholesale.
“I shouldn't have to offer anything,” President Obama told NPR. “They're not doing me a favor by paying for things that they have already approved for the government to do. That's part of their basic function of government; that's not doing me a favor.”
Both Neil and Lizza agreed that this was a “systematic” problem that has resulted in a “dysfunctional democracy,” as Neil put it.
“America’s good at lecturing the rest of the world on governance,” Neil told Amanpour. “I think the rest of the world is going to need to give America a few lectures on governance.”