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Vappala Balachandran | 25 FEBRUARY, 2015

US Republicans Threaten to Close Down Homeland Security


Our NDA government is worried over their inability to pass what they say are “reform laws” because of opposition parties’ intransigence. Other countries including older democracies have similar or even bigger problems. Imagine a situation in which we are forced to shut down a major portion of our Union Home Ministry’s activities due to the refusal of opposition parties to approve the Home Ministry’s budget at a time when our security situation is far from normal! Unfortunately this is what might happen shortly in USA, the world’s oldest democracy if the present trend is any indication. The present worry is that this might adversely affect funding of certain programmes undertaken by their Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as counter-terrorism measures apart from depriving their regular staff of their salaries.

Unlike in other countries, instances of government shutdown have become quite common in USA due to what is called “Gridlock” between the government (Executive Branch) and the Congress. In 2013 “Washington Post” took a survey and found that between 1976 and 1996, parts of federal government were closed down on 17 occasions for 110 days. This had happened under every president since Gerald Ford. Only President George W .Bush could avoid it during his two terms. After 1996 the next closure was in 2013 under President Obama when Government had to be shut down for 16 days. Several disputes were based on ego hassles: seven were on budget, four on abortion rights, one on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, one on MX missile, one on whether Israel should be supplied with nuclear missile, one on welfare extension, one over “Contra” (Nicaragua rebels) funding and one each on health insurances like “Medicare” and “Obama care”. The longest shutdown was under President Clinton for three weeks in 1995. Nearly three lakh federal employees were “furloughed” while 4, 75,000 worked without pay. The loss to the economy was about US dollars two billion.

Prior to the Nixon Era (1969-1974) the Congress did not greatly object to the federal budget proposed by the President. In 1974 they passed a stiff law when Nixon refused to spend funds on certain Congressional programmes. They also created a Congressional Budget Office. Hence US has 2 major Budget offices, unlike in India. This new law was easily passed in 1974 when the office of the President was weakened by the Nixon era abuses.

The President’s budget proposals are now considered by both houses of the Congress. Differences between both houses are reconciled and a “Conference Report” through “Concurrent Resolution” is passed. Only then the “Appropriation Committee” will enact “Appropriation Bills” to release funds. Even during the passage of spending bills, they add certain political conditions, thus tweaking the original aims of the bill. Very often this procedure is not smooth especially when opposition parties control both Congressional Houses as is the case now. Even when one or both houses were under the same political party such problems had arisen. On January 15, 2014 the bipartisan “National Governors’ Association” officially criticized the “Gridlock” in the Congress despite a “Budget Agreement” which had adversely affected federal funding of their State programmes. Now both houses are Republican dominated.

The present dispute is over President Obama’s immigration orders. Faced with the “Gridlock” in the Congress over his immigration bill, President Obama issued executive orders in November 2014 to “Fix our broken immigration system”. He said: "We didn’t raise the Statue of Liberty with her back to the world, we did it with her light shining as a beacon to the world. And whether we were Irish or Italians or Germans crossing the Atlantic, or Japanese or Chinese crossing the Pacific; whether we crossed the Rio Grande or flew here from all over the world — generations of immigrants have made this country into what it is. It’s what makes us special." He said that too many employers “game” the system by hiring undocumented workers, and there were 11 million people living in the shadows. “Neither is good for the economy or the country”.

US Republicans blamed him for issuing executive orders affecting this huge number of workers without any legal backing. They feared that it would help the political fortunes of Democrats, which were sliding. Early in February 2015 a Texas Federal Court stayed these orders until the courts decided whether they were constitutional. On February 23, 2015 the Justice Department moved for an emergency Court ruling to “stay” the court order so that new immigration reforms could go forward. They introduced a security dimension in their plea that the presence of millions of undocumented workers was a national security threat. The Congressional Republicans retaliated by holding up the Homeland Security Department budget. President Obama now wants to appeal to the nation that the Republicans are cutting the country’s nose to spite the President’s face.

This is the background to the present standoff in the US Congress over the budget of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which, unless approved would expire on Feb. 28 forcing that department to close down many of their security activities after March 1.

It remains to be seen whether the US public would be frightened with this prospect of losing their security cover when Jihadists like ISIS are threatening them. Already there are reports that 100 Americans have joined the dreaded ISIS. Their return to US would create a major threat like in European countries.

I might add here that President Bill Clinton had won overwhelmingly over the 1995 stand off with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had Presidential ambitions. Clinton’s approval ratings rose very high when it was projected that the Republicans were objecting to welfare spending. In 2010 the Congressional Research Service released a study that the 1995-96 Clinton- Gingrich shutdown was at substantial cost to all sectors including preventive disease control and medical services to ex-military personnel. Also, toxic waste disposal at 609 sites was stopped. It remains to be seen who will gain the upper hand in the present standoff when national security is threatened.

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