American flags weren’t flying at half-staff yesterday, but our national government was certainly floundering.
Across New England, beloved landmarks were closed for business. Some confused federal employees probably wondered whether they were essential or nonessential.
And in the midst of it all, Michael Capuano was quietly seething. The longtime Somerville congressman was not happy to see federal government brought to a halt. And he wasn’t optimistic about a quick resolution to the first government shutdown in 17 years.
“It’s a combination of frustrated and pensive,” he said of the mood among House Democrats. “It’s pretty obvious that we’re not going to repeal health care reform. That being the case, somebody’s got to move, and we’ve moved already.”
First elected in 1998, Capuano has become an insider among House Democrats. Although he would be loath to admit it, he has come to relish the daily battle with Republicans, who, he believes, are all too happy to accept the benefits from programs they vote against.
The stalemate that shuttered big chunks of federal government has widely been cast as a battle over the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. But Capuano sees it as a far broader battle over the scope of government itself, one in which, in his view, Republicans have won far too much already.
As we spoke by phone yesterday, plans were being gingerly floated to get the government going temporarily. Those ideas all involved budget cuts that went well beyond the current sequestration, furthering the stated Tea Party goal of shrinking government as much as possible.
How long the government will be held hostage to this dubious agenda is anybody’s guess. Some observers believe that the shutdown could well last until the next manufactured Washington crisis, the looming showdown over raising the debt ceiling, just a couple of weeks away.
While this silliness was unfolding, Obamacare was becoming a reality. Tuesday was the first day for the uninsured to begin to sign up for its insurance plans. No matter how long the shutdown lasts, the chances of undoing health care reform seemed pretty remote. So really the John F. Kennedy Library and Faneuil Hall are closed for no good reason.
Of course, not everyone views this as a bad fight. Capuano said he was in an airport last weekend flying home from Washington when a TSA screener stopped him and said, “You really need to cut our taxes!” Capuano was incredulous to hear that from a federal employee, though he probably shouldn’t have been.
“I asked him, ‘Do you know taxes pay your salary?’ ” Capuano said with a laugh.
Some have said the shutdown illustrates the large ideological gulf between House Republicans and the White House. Certainly that is true, though this divide is nothing new.
The more important disconnect may be between Washington — or some factions of Washington — and the rest of the country. We’d rather not have to think much about the federal government, that hydra-headed monster that invisibly wields so much power over our lives. But the people who have thought Americans don’t care about having the government shut down have an unbroken record, so far, of being mistaken. Love or hate the federal government, we tend to have this crazy idea that it belongs to us.
Capuano is the first to say that he isn’t an optimist by nature. But he believes that there might be something to be gained from the madness gripping Washington.
“For me, the silver lining will be if the American people come out of this with a reconnection with what is done with federal dollars,” he said. “There are 4,000 state jobs that are paid for with federal money, but nobody knows that. People are busy; I understand that. But people are going to have to look in the mirror and think about what they want their government to be.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.