Congressional Fiscal Shenanigans: O. Henry or Stanley Kubrick?

After weeks of gamesmanship, a minority in Congress succeeded in shutting down the federal government at midnight.  The full impact here in Maine is still uncertain.

We do know that on the cusp of peak leaf-peeping season, Acadia National Park will close and businesses on Mount Desert and throughout the surrounding area will feel the pain. Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce told the Portland Press Herald that 70 percent of local businesses have already reported losses of 10-20 percent when the park delayed opening the Loop Road for a month in the spring due to congressionally mandated sequester budget cuts.

“I think we are all hoping they will come to their senses and make a deal because the impact on our communities would be pretty significant,” he said.

The prevailing signs suggest that eventually they will. As President Obama put it last night, “One faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government.”

The polls suggest that the government shutdown could be the tea party’s equivalent of “The Ransom of Red Chief,” O. Henry’s story, about two bumbling desperadoes who kidnap the child of a wealthy businessman and demand a hefty sum for his return. The scheme totally backfires when the kid turns out to be a menace, terrorizing his captors. The father replies to their ransom demand with his own ultimatum that they pay him to take his son back. Realizing they’ve made a huge mistake, the scoundrels eventually release the boy and beat a hasty retreat.

Sadly, such grandstanding has become standard operating procedure in Congress. And an even more dangerous threat looms on the horizon: if Congress fails to extend the nation’s debt ceiling before October 17, the federal government will default on its bills.

“Even if it’s a brief failure, it would forever be a signal to the market that you can’t trust the United States government to make its payment when it’s due,” Millan Mulraine, the director of United States research and strategy at TD Securities told The New York Times. “That would shake the foundations of the global financial system.”

Should the political theater carry over to the debt ceiling debate, the stakes will be much higher and the potential outcome more devastating. A better analogy for that eventuality won’t be O. Henry. It would be more like Stanley Kubrick. His classic Cold War black comedy, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” is about how the deluded actions of political extremist General Jack D. Ripper trigger a “doomsday device” that destroys civilization.

It’s time for the radicals in Congress to end the government shutdown and take their fingers off the switch that could lead to an international economic meltdown.