After the federal government shut down at midnight on Tuesday, The Daily Princetonian spoke to U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) about the implications of the shutdown for the country as a whole and for the Princeton area.
The Daily Princetonian: What do you think began the events that led to a government shutdown?
Rush Holt: Well, it’s pretty clear. I mean, this has been a collision course for — well, actually, that’s not quite the right word. It’s been a train barreling down the tracks toward a cliff for a couple of weeks now, and last night, the train just ran off the cliff. You know, this was not a collision. It’s not as if these were two equal sides engaged in a discussion of principle. No, this was just kind of a crazy suicide mission of a bunch of fanatics who first took the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, took them over, and then took the government hostage, and said, “You know, if you don’t change some laws that we don’t like, we’ll stop government operations.” And it really was a hostage-taking situation — [it] really is a hostage-taking situation.
DP: And why do you think that President Obama’s healthcare law became kind of the focal point of talks preceding the government shutdown?
RH: You know, it really is curious that that law has engendered so much hatred. In fact, well, obviously, a lot of money has been spent denigrating the president and this major piece of legislation that he promoted. But why these well-funded groups chose that is not entirely clear, because the public, if they are asked about the components of the healthcare law, they like it. They like the fact that 25-year-olds can stay on their parents’ policy. They like the fact that a family can no longer be denied insurance because of a preexisting condition. They like the fact that you don’t run into an annual or a lifetime limit on insurance expenditures for your healthcare. They like the fact that insurance companies have to actually spend more money than they used to actually providing healthcare, rather than pocketing the money or paying executive salaries or whatever. They like the fact that you get preventive healthcare without co-pays. And on and on. They like the fact that tens of millions of Americans who have been shut out of the system, mostly for economic reasons, will now be able to buy healthcare at reasonable prices that don’t consume too much of their income. All of those reasons.
So you would think that this would be a popular law, but because it has been systematically attacked, it has turned into a pretty attractive punching bag. But nevertheless, whatever the piece of legislation is, this idea of government by hostage-taking is unacceptable. I mean, sure, there have been political power plays from time to time throughout American history. But the idea that, if a divided government, where different parties control different houses of Congress or there’s a difference between the executive and the legislative branch, prevents you from changing a law you don’t like, well, usually what you should do is work to build the political power to change the makeup of the government. In other words, you try to win at the next election so that you can pass the legislation that you want to pass. What they’re doing now is legislation that was newly passed and signed into law has to be, in their minds, repealed, or else they’ll bring down the government.
That’s a pretty dangerous idea. Everything from investigations by the Centers for Disease Control to origination of college loans to applications to receive Social Security or on and on and on, not just national parks or the Smithsonian Museums, are closed. [They] are shut down. That’s not just hardball politics; that’s really a crazy, petulant, immature and governmentally destructive approach.
DP: What are the effects of the government shutdown going to be, especially in Princeton and our district?
RH:You know, it’s investigations by the CDC, origination of college loans, applications for Social Security. Some food inspections are considered essential; some are not and therefore would not go forward. You know, it’s hundreds of thousands of federal employees doing things in the Department of Transportation or the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is, you know, Sandy Hook National Seashore in New Jersey. Anyway, so it’s a long list of things.
DP: You voted no on the proposal that the House passed to delay Obamacare’s individual coverage mandate. Why?
RH:I mean, there are not just hundreds of thousands — [there are] millions of Americans who will benefit from the opportunity to get healthcare coverage, so they won’t have to avoid going to the doctor because they can’t pay for it. So they won’t have to stand in line at the emergency room and perhaps get showed to the side with serious health consequences. It’s easy for these right-wing radicals to say, “Well, let’s put this off a year” if these right-wing radicals have healthcare coverage. You know, if you’re a diabetic and your diabetes is not under control, you’re not going to keep that under control with occasional visits to the emergency room. This becomes a matter of life and death.
That’s just one of many, many thousands of life-and-death examples that I could give you having to deal with a one-year delay. We should have done this years ago, but thank goodness we’ve gotten around now to the Affordable Care Act, to bringing these tens of millions of people into the system. They’ve been shut of the system for too long. And instead of talking about a year’s delay, we should be talking about how we can bring even more people into the system, so that we really do have the healthiest populace possible.
DP: How do you think we can avoid government shutdowns in the future?
RH: Well, evidently it takes some backbone that has been in short supply. The minority faction that has hoisted this on the Republican Conference and then on all of Congress should have been told no. Sit down, and shut up. You don’t govern this way. You can think of plenty of examples where a minority party would not like a piece of legislation, whether it’s authorization to go to war in Iraq or gun registration, or you name it — things that people feel strongly about. And where the legislative vote has gone the other way, you don’t say, “I’m going to blow up the government because I’m not getting my way.” You would try to build a coalition to advance your political interests. And that’s what has worked in this country for a couple of centuries. I hope this doesn’t mean a growing instability or a long term unraveling of the will that’s necessary for a self-governing country.
You know, a few years back, the Republican majority, with very little Democratic support, and under President Bush’s leadership, passed what’s known as Medicare Part D — the prescription medicine part of Medicare. I felt, and most Democrats felt, that it was poorly designed. The wording was enriching a number of corporations and not as efficient as it could be if it were a regular part of Medicare. After that passed, the implementation problems turned out to be difficult. The registration was confusing to seniors on Medicare, and the computers were crashing, and the roll-out was troubled. Democrats, instead of saying, “Look, we never liked this, and we wish that it fails, and in fact, we’re going to try to make it fail,” Democrats instead said, “Well, let’s try to make this work as best we can,” and people like me in Congress had ads and emails and other things to educate Medicare beneficiaries about the new prescription plan and try to make it work as well as we could, even though we didn’t like the legislation [and] thought we could do better another way. And we didn’t threaten to bring down the country or even try to stymie the program. We said, “Okay, well, let’s make this work as best we can for people on Medicare.” I wish the Republicans would say, “Look, there are things we don’t like about the Affordable Care Act. It is the law; let’s make it work as best we can for Americans and work to improve it.” But that’s not their approach.