People are dying, cold and hungry: what happens when Government stops
Between the ongoing Brexit saga and the US Government shutdown, people could be forgiven from returning from the Christmas break and assuming that Ragnarok was upon us. Living in turbulent political times, as we do, and having our eyes and ears deluged with news from the internet, TV and radio, it is all too easy to lose sight of the reality of what is going on. Furthermore, for those of us who spend a lot of time talking and writing about Constitutions and Public Law, there is a risk of it all becoming grist to the academic mill. We examine situations and dissect them, but that doesn’t mean that it is acceptable to lose sight of why all of this matters. This blog has two aims: 1) to offer some thoughts about what the US Government shutdown tells us about the doctrine of Separation of Powers; and 2) much more importantly, to flag up the consequences of this constitutional problem in real human terms.
As is well known, unlike the UK, the US has a codified Constitution and a robust Separation of Powers, far clearer than our model of Checks and Balances. This means that the rules by which the country operates were consciously devised, and that executive, legislative and judicial powers have been parcelled out and kept in separate hands. The rationale behind this is to prevent any one person or group gathering too much power, and using it in a tyrannical or capricious way. Nevertheless, the trade-off for such robust protection is that the three branches of the State may be composed of people with different agendas, even though they are mutually dependent. For instance, as the current crisis demonstrates, the Executive (President) cannot implement its policies effectively unless it can get the legislature (Congress) to assist. It’s a bit like the Sesame Street lesson on cooperation, where Bert has peanut butter and Ernie has bread, and the only viable way of making a sandwich is to work together: except in this instance there is zero goodwill between the parties holding the loaf and the spread.
In short, Donald Trump wants money to build a wall on the US/Mexican border, but he cannot get Congress to support the project and give him the funds. The Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the Mid-Term elections, which is a serious issue for a Republican President. In the UK, it would of course be unthinkable to have a Conservative Prime Minister when the Labour Party controlled the House of Commons. The strong link between the Government and Parliament in the UK is clear illustration of a much weaker doctrine of Separation of Powers, or put another way, a different kind of mechanism of Checks and Balances. It is not that the UK attempted a US model and was less successful in achieving this, but rather that a different approach to checking abuses of power grew up in Britain.
As a consequence of having a President and Legislature at loggerheads in US at present, finance for the Federal Government has effectively been frozen and many of its operations have been shut-down. Shockingly for Europeans, many Americans with employment status roughly akin to civil servants have been required to work without pay because their role is deemed “essential”, whilst those considered non-essential are on enforced unpaid leave. Meanwhile, rubbish is piling up in National Parks and doors of world famous cultural institutions like the Smithsonian museum have been closed. Unfortunately, it gets much worse than this…
The partial shutdown of the Federal Government means that some of the services to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are in grave jeopardy. For instance, those reliant on food stamps via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme may have their service disrupted, and regrettably, adults and children already living in poverty be left without food.
As compensation for forcibly taking land from Native Americans, as well as depriving entire peoples of their livelihood and entire way of living in the process, the Federal Government guaranteed various services to these communities, but the shutdown effectively means that funding for these programmes has dried up. Health clinics are on the verge of having to close their doors, insulin dependent diabetics may soon be told that the medicine keeping them alive is unavailable, and there are reports that one Native American man has already died because snow-ploughs were not operating, meaning that emergency services were not able to reach him in time.
In stark terms, therefore, at least one person has lost their life because of the political showdown in Washington. Strikingly, this has not been mentioned by the President in any of his public statements, and there have been no apologies to the man’s family, friends or tribe. Treating the loss of any human being as collateral damage, and not worthy of acknowledgement, simply has no place in any civilised society. And in fairness to the United States, this case has received wide attention in other circles precisely because other politicians recognise this reality and have raised it.
Needless to say, this post is in no way an expression of any kind of anti-US sentiment. Like every other nation on the planet, the United States has unique, creative and positive dimensions, as well as its own particular challenges. Moreover, in terms of constitutional impasse with human consequences, those of us resident in the UK are hardly in a position to cast the first stone at present. It is just that the current US shutdown provides an especially dramatic reminder of the importance of constitutional arrangements, and the cost in human terms when they seize up.
Trump wall: President addresses nation on border crisis (BBC News 9/1/2019)
US Government Shutdown: How long? Who is affected? Why did it begin? (Aljazeera 9/1/2019)
Shutdown leaves food, pay and medicine in doubt in Indian country (New York Times 1/1/2019)
Ragnarok: What the Old Norse Sources Say (Jackson Crawford 30/10/17)