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Why the shutdown means something

Big deal, right?

The first day of the federal government shutdown came and went Tuesday, and most of us couldn’t tell the difference.

The Panda Cam turned off at the National Zoo? We’ll survive. The Statue of Liberty visitors center closed? Yawn. And the country can survive a few days without the U.S. Geological Survey’s scientific work.

What shutdown?

Look a little closer. About 800,000 federal workers are being furloughed. That’s like every single N.C. employee of Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Wal-Mart and Food Lion combined – times six. The citizens they serve each day are left to wait for a resolution. The restaurants that serve them lunch and the gas stations that fill their cars take a hit.

North Carolinians in the tourism industry will suffer as national parks and beaches close. And while it’s not immediately painful, the standoff has stopped an array of important work, from national scientists’ research on cancer to clean-up work on the Savannah River Site nuclear waste facility near Aiken, S.C.

Imagine the pain if this were a real government shutdown: No mail, no flights, no Social Security checks. Some on Tuesday dismissed the shutdown as inconsequential, and even applauded it. They wouldn’t applaud if Congress truly shut things down.

Well, you might say, that’s collateral damage in a necessary fight over the size of the federal government. The United States is swimming in red ink, and if a partial shutdown is the price of an important wrangling over public policy, so be it.

Except no such debate is happening. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has shut down the government over its Captain Ahab-like obsession with Obamacare – policy that Congress passed, the Supreme Court upheld and the president campaigned on while winning re-election. A Democratic Senate and President Obama were never going to sign off on a bill that defunds or delays what the president considers his signature accomplishment.

Republicans surely knew this, meaning they threw 800,000 people out of work not to change policy but to make a political statement, and to throw some red-meat to the loyalist voters back in their gerrymandered districts. Goldman Sachs warned that a one-week shutdown could hit fourth-quarter GDP by 0.3 percentage points. That the whole thing is a stunt makes it even more irresponsible.

Besides the immediate effects, the shutdown is troubling because it’s illustrative of just what a farce this nation’s governance has become. Congress is fundamentally broken, with the vast majority of House members elected from districts made safe by gerrymandering.

America has budget problems, to be sure, and needs a serious debate about how to address them. Ideological differences are natural and healthy. An inability to navigate them is not.

As disturbing as this week’s events are, they are merely a prelude to an even more consequential fight. The U.S. is expected to exceed its debt limit in two weeks, on Oct. 17. That cliff is much steeper than this week’s. Any reasonable government would not go over it. Hold on tight.

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