Washington is broken

When Washington is this broken, it's always the most vulnerable who get hurt.Political careers may be made and...

Posted: Jan 19, 2018 12:43 PM
Updated: Jan 19, 2018 12:43 PM

When Washington is this broken, it's always the most vulnerable who get hurt.

Political careers may be made and lost Friday as President Donald Trump and Republicans and Democrats in Congress trade blame while the government races toward a midnight shutdown deadline.

But while Washington fixates over the partisan stakes of the funding drama, the real victims of the latest lurch into government dysfunction are powerless to influence their fates, and can only look on in rising panic and fear.

It's not that Washington politicians don't understand the human consequences of their delay and inability to compromise. They just don't know how to get it done in an era of deep polarization and when goodwill and bipartisan solutions between the parties have long since disappeared.

House votes to avert government shutdown, path in Senate unclear

Dramatic confrontations like this one over a shutdown have proven to be the only way that a polarized Congress in a deeply divided country lacking a dominant political consensus can actually do its work, at moments when the cost of inaction becomes greater than the price lawmakers will pay for taking difficult votes.

This time around, it's at least 700,000 people brought to the US illegally as children and children who get their health care through a long running insurance program who've been dragged into the partisan crossfire as Congress fails to fulfill its basic function, providing continuous governance.

They are being used as bargaining chips as Republican leaders in Congress seek to fund the government, possibly yet again on a short term extension, and Democrats seek to use a moment of high political leverage.

DACA recipients are struggling through just their latest agonizing false dawn as they wait for Congress to act to make their status in the US permanent -- a step that has overwhelming public support.

Juan Escalante, a DACA beneficiary who works for the America's Voice immigration reform advocacy group, says the emotional trauma of watching Washington's twists and turns is becoming almost too much to bear.

"What I hear time and time again from people who are going through this legislative process for the first time, people in their early 20s ... is that their level of anxiety and fear is almost intolerable," he said. "I have had text messages from people who call me and text me from work, who are having panic attacks or are crying in their bathroom stall because the headlines and the back and forth is so prevalent."

Unless Congress acts by March, DACA recipients will begin to lose protections from deportation under the program, and their lives and livelihoods will be thrown into turmoil.

The agony of the DACA community is mirrored by those supported by the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is popular with lawmakers from both sides and has been consistently funded for two decades. But money is running out and the bickering Congress can't agree how to fix it.

Nothing preoccupies a parent as much as a child who is ill. But without a quick fix from Congress, many of the 9 million kids who get government help through the plan could lose their health care.

Dr Matthew Davis, a physician who's the head of academic general pediatrics at Northwestern University, said CHIP's vital role was in doubt.

"What I have noticed with CHIP is that it puts parents' and grandparents' minds' at ease and it lets us focus on the most important work -- which is to let every child be healthy," Davis said.

"Parents who have kids with special or complete health needs are especially concerned that CHIP -- that has already been allowed to expire -- will never come back," Davis said.

While those affected by DACA and CHIP are the most visible victims of a potential government shutdown, they are not alone.

Hundreds of thousands of government employees could be furloughed, veterans could see government payments delayed and if the shutdown lingers military personnel could go unpaid until there is a resolution.

How Washington works -- or doesn't

Funding for CHIP would sail through Congress as a stand-alone bill given its bipartisan support. But a plan to support the program for a further six years was added to a House bill to fund the government for four weeks in a bid to win Democratic support.

But the bill's prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where at least 10 Democratic votes will be needed to pass the funding bill and where liberal lawmakers are under pressure to hold out for a DACA fix to be included.

That move could torpedo the effort, since Trump and conservative Republicans insist they have yet to see sufficient funding for his border wall in the measure.

House Speaker Paul Ryan stressed the human toll of the CHIP funding crunch as he tried to get Democrats to sign on to his funding bill.

"The states are going to be shutting down CHIP in days. Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oregon, Virginia, Washington state," Ryan said.

"These are states that are running out of CHIP money if we don't get this thing passed, and I can't imagine why somebody would want to vote against doing that."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was scathing about the insertion of CHIP in the government funding bill, saying the measure did not include money for community health centers needed to support the program.

"This is like giving you a bowl of doggie-doo, put a cherry on top and call it a chocolate sundae. This is nothing," she told reporters.

'This has turned into an s-show'

The latest logjam is far from the first time that Washington's dysfunction has put the welfare of millions at risk.

Short term funding bills, fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns and threatened shutdowns and spending sequesters were also a feature of the Obama era, when power was often shared in Washington and compromise was scarce.

Democrats argue that the current mess is a failure by the GOP, given its monopoly on power in the White House and on Capitol Hill. After all, Trump made fixing Washington a key rationale of his outsider run for office.

"I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," the President said in his Republican National Convention speech in 2016.

Yet it seems unlikely that any future Democratic president, after winning the White House vowing to fix Washington, will be any more successful.

For now, with no clear path obvious for a shutdown to be averted, it looks likely that DACA and CHIP beneficiaries will face days, or weeks, of more anxiety.

"This has turned into an s-show and we need to get back to being a great country," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Wednesday.

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