A government shutdown is not the real threat

The debt ceiling debate is far more important.

As I write, 2.30pm UK time on 30th Sept, it is looking increasingly likely that the dysfunctional US Congress is stumbling towards an impasse which will cause an embarrassing temporary shutdown of US Government. The one consolation that ordinary Americans can potentially cling to in the face of this debacle, is that this is how it’s meant to be-having escaped Britain’s despotic rule, the Founding Fathers drafted the constitution very carefully to ensure extensive check and balances, limitations of powers, and separation of powers between different branches of government.

Last week the Republican House majority amended the so-called  "continuing resolution" (CR-the bill required to authorize government spending), to include de-funding of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The Democrat-controlled Senate was quick to chuck this out, (of course). The House then came back with a tweeked amendment, delaying some Obamacare for a year and repealing a tax on medical devices.  The senate will also reject this version of CR when it rolls into work today at 2pm Washington time.

We may then get yet another iteration from the House, but time will be running out if so, as the current fiscal year ends and government spending authority expires at midnight on 30th, leaving very little time for the Senate and House to complete this ping-pong game successfully. Waving some of the Senate’s ponderous procedures may yet allow passage before midnight, but it’s looking unlikely now.

Up to 800,000 government workers may be laid-off and some economic statistics will not be released, but the law states that many categories of spending are deemed critical and are thus exempt from mandatory shutdown; only so-called "discretionary spending" is affected. The direct hit to GDP is probably about 0.2 per cent per week of shutdown, on an annualized basis, and I would expect the shutdown to last a week at most.

The real problem here is that there are in fact three parties in the House-mainstream Republicans and Democrats, and then the Republican Tea Party caucus; the latter is effectively forcing Republican House Speaker Boehner to take a stab at Obamacare by including these amendments in the CR-even though they have no chance of getting through the Senate.

The reality is that this is surely a nerve-racking escapade, even for the Tea Party, and certainly for more moderate Republican politicians who know their constituents will not thank them for provoking this pointless to and fro, and a government shutdown. Mid-term elections approach in November 2014 and I believe this is why we should not worry that these CR shenanigans imply anything for the far more important debt ceiling debate, which must be concluded over the next few weeks to avoid a US default.

Congress may yet cause a government shutdown, but if so, that’s probably because politicians know it won’t have disastrous consequences, either for the country or for their chances of re-election - they are extremely unlikely to view the prospect of a US default in the same way. The party seen to have caused that will have committed electoral suicide.

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An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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