The National Zoo has confirmed that it will continue the care and feeding of its animals during the federal shutdown that began Tuesday. But it closed its gates to the public and turned off the live “animal cams” that allow observers worldwide to monitor the antics of giant pandas and other wild creatures. In the interim, C-SPAN will no doubt serve as a suitable substitute.
It’s often said that a crisis may yield an opportunity. But some of the denizens of our other national zoo, Congress, are taking every opportunity to manufacture a crisis.
Even after the fiscal-cliff fiasco, and amid once and future debt-ceiling dramas, the crisis at hand is particularly contrived. It comes down to lawmakers’ refusal to conduct basic legislative business — namely, to fund the federal government for another six weeks — unless the president and his party agree to postpone the centerpiece of the Affordable Care Act, a law that has been passed and repeatedly affirmed by Congress, contested unsuccessfully in two political campaigns, and upheld by the Supreme Court.
Moreover, this gross overreach is being pushed by a faction of a Republican majority in a single chamber of Congress. Sens. Pat Toomey and John McCain, both staunch opponents of the health-care law, along with several Pennsylvania and New Jersey congressmen, are among the Republicans who have expressed serious reservations about the risks of forcing a government hiatus.
Even in the short term, the shutdown is bound to be annoying and even painful for many — including, for example, the 10,000 daily visitors expected at Independence National Historical Park, the countless local businesses that rely on tourists, and the scores of park employees who will go without pay for the duration. On the other hand, since it won’t affect public employees deemed essential, such as airport security, or entitlement programs, such as Social Security — and, ironically, Obamacare — the harm should remain contained for a few days.
Brief federal shutdowns are harmless enough that they were once fairly common; there were eight in the 1980s. Then, in 1995, a standoff between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton forced a shutdown that lasted three weeks. The human, economic, and political repercussions cured the government of the habit for the next 17 years.
Now, however, it appears that enough members of Congress are sufficiently oblivious of that history that they might repeat it. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), who was first elected in the Gingrich wave of 1994, is not one of them.
“I’ve been through this before,” he told The Inquirer Tuesday. “The last time around, we were promised this would be very short-lived. Twenty days later, we were still in the same room. I’d like us to find a way to move forward.”
In the alternative, a Gingrich-size sabbatical could diminish economic growth in the fourth quarter by more than half, according to Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. In other words, much like the panda cam, this could get dark fast.