BOSTON — Two against one are usually pretty good odds in a school-yard fight, but not on Capitol Hill.
The proverbial wheels on the congressional bus stopped spinning in place this week and came to a complete halt, sending the federal government skidding and screeching past a Monday midnight deadline to fund day-to-day operations.
And so the memo from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget went out: shut it down.
Prolonged partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C., resulted in the first government shutdown in 17 years on Tuesday, and for Democrats longing for a return to the (Hillary) Clinton years in 2016, they got an early dose of nostalgia. Just like the 1996 shutdown, Republican House leaders and a Democrat in the White House are at odds, the difference being today’s Democrat-controlled Senate.
While the mail, air traffic control and Social Security and Medicare benefits continued, national parks like Faneuil Hall shuttered their doors, student loan processing ceased and 4,600 state employees paid with federal grants waited nervously to find out when the money to pay their salaries would dry up.
The longer the shutdown goes, the more problems could arise. Undersecretary for Housing Aaron Gornstein noted his most immediate concern is with Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP), a program unable to begin processing requests for fuel assistance ahead of the Nov. 1 start date.
Massachusetts’s congressional contingent played its part in the partisan finger-pointing, frequently found on the airwaves of CSPAN doing what they could to make sure the American people know who to blame.
Spoiler alert: It’s the Tea Party Republicans, who they said had “hijacked” the government and bullied their party leadership, i.e. House Speaker John Boehner, into a staring contest with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I think Tea Party Republican are playing a big game with little people and I hope God forgives them for that, but I hope voters won’t,” Gov. Deval Patrick said on day two of the shutdown. No one will accuse Patrick of false equivalence on this issue.
While the White House and the Democrat-controlled Senate insisted on a “clean CR” to temporarily keep the doors of government revolving, House Republican leadership insisted on concessions over Obamacare, proposing to either defund or delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act for one year.
Ironically enough, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act went forward unabated by the showdown in Congress, with state-based health insurance exchanges opening around the country, including in Massachusetts, for residents to begin signing up for health plans.
By week’s end, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was referring to outspoken Republicans opposed to Obamacare as the “anarchist gang,” serving up a defense of government worthy of the New York Times labeling her the darling of the “populist left,” which the newspaper did on its front page last Sunday.
Needless to say, the national Republican Party had few defenders in Massachusetts. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker didn’t single out either party for blame, but criticized the type of leadership on display in Washington that embraces “partisan brinksmanship.” And Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said legitimate concerns over the health care law should probably not be used as a reason to hold up other issues.
Then there was former Sen. Scott Brown, who said he saw plenty of blame to go around. Brown got more than his fair share of attention after putting his Wrentham home on the market and continuing his flirtation with a New Hampshire Senate run that had a leading Granite State newspaper begging Brown to put a ring on it, or move on.
Amidst the national wrangling over health care, the relatively new Health Policy Commission convened its first two-day health care cost trends hearing, bringing in heavy-hitters to UMass Boston from government and the health industry to take stock of efforts to rein in costs.
While the major players debated the merits of market consolidation and their ability to stay under spending limits imposed by last year’s cost-containment law, Attorney General Martha Coakley delivered an emotional plea for access to mental health services, conjuring painful memories of her brother who took his own life.
Back on Beacon Hill, both the House and Senate scratched items off their to-do list for this fall, with the House acting on compounding pharmacy oversight legislation and Senate Democrats putting forward a plan to finance investments in aging water infrastructure.
The pharmacy bill – spawned by the nationwide meningitis outbreak last year linked to a Framingham company – calls for new licensing requirements for in-state and out-of-state sterile compounding pharmacies, spot inspections, drug labeling and a reconfigured Board of Registration in Pharmacy.
The bill passed the House 155-0.
And on Thursday, Senate President Therese Murray and Sen. Jamie Eldridge partnered on new legislation to address a long-term $21.4 billion funding gap for water infrastructure repair and maintenance, an issue lawmakers admittedly to be not as “sexy” as transportation, but no less dire or costly.
Murray said she’d like to get the bill to the floor of the Senate by January at the latest and November the earliest in time to add it to the so-far short list of accomplishments for the Legislature this year. But she’ll have to go through Sen. Marc Pacheco. In the spirit of the independence of legislative committees, Pacheco said he would take the bill into consideration and “try” to schedule a quick hearing.
Pacheco’s lukewarm we’ll-take-it-from-here response to the Murray-Eldridge water bill stood out for its rare assertion of chairman autonomy, and word in the Senate was that the Taunton Democrat may have felt a little cold after being mostly iced out of the bill’s development.
With Murray one step closer to knocking an item off her priority list, it seemed an apropos time to check on her status:
Q: So, Madame President, when will you make a decision on whether to seek reelection in 2014? A: “Sometime in 2014.”
Q: Are you exploring any opportunities? A: “You know I have to file a disclosure if I do and you guys are watching that every day. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m the Senate president. What better job could I want?”
Q: But your job has an expiration date? A: “Yeah. Don’t we all.”
For federal employees in Massachusetts on furlough this week, there was at least one silver lining: No awkward conversation with the boss asking to leave early Friday afternoon to catch the first pitch of the Red Sox playoff campaign.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Partisan fighting, and infighting, in Congress caused the federal government shutdown for four days and counting.