Just Politics: What just happened!?

In this episode of the podcast, NETWORK government relations director Ronnate Asirwatham discusses the recently averted government shutdown.

It’s been a chaotic week in Washington, D.C., with a narrowly averted government shutdown and the historic ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. We speak with NETWORK government relations director Ronnate Asirwatham, who explains why it doesn’t have to be this way—that the drama surrounding a still-possible government shutdown involves a small group of extremist legislators determined to slash funding to vital human needs programs and introduce punitive immigration provisions into the federal budget, or else. 

NETWORK and allies helped keep these provisions out of the short-term deal that keeps the government funded until November 17. But the harm of these measures, to say nothing of the harm that an actual government shutdown would cause to millions of people, remains a real possibility as the weeks ahead unfold. Through all of this rings the question: What does it say for the health of U.S. democracy when the very people we elect are so fixated on stopping the functions of the federal government?

You can learn more about Ronnate Asirwatham and the averted shutdown in the links below:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Just Politics:

Just Politics Transcript – October 6, 2023

Joan Neal: Hello everyone, from the eye of the policy storm. I’m Joan Neal and I’m here with my co-hosts, Sister Eilis McCulloh and Colin Martinez Longmore, for a conversation about what just happened in the Congress. As you might’ve heard, we narrowly avoided a government shutdown a week ago. A government shutdown happens when Congress fails to pass a budget to keep the government funded.

Eilis McCulloh: If that were not enough, for the first time in history, the Speaker of the House was ousted from his position. And, this constitutionally mandated responsibility now technically remains open until the House can select a new Speaker. Someone has to say it…

Joan: I know. When the current Congress can’t even keep the government open and functioning, it’s an ominous sign for the overall health of our democracy.

Colin Martinez Longmore: You can picture a shutdown like this. Picture you work at a huge national company like McDonald’s, right? And at the end of the year, the board of McDonald’s needs to make a budget so they can pay all of its bills, pay its employees, and keep everyone running. And then everyone comes together to agree on a budget and how to spend it. Except, there’s the spoiled and nepotist children of the CEO, who happen to be major stakeholders as well, and want to make a point. So instead of working together and compromising like everyone else, they simply choose to shut the company down. And now millions across the country can’t go to work, the company takes huge financial hits, and people can’t buy the food that they want. Not to mention that the public’s trust and respect for that company is now severely affected. So now we take McDonald’s and replace it with the US government, and imagine instead of having a hard time getting a burger, you’re having a hard time accessing medical services for your broken leg. Or instead of not getting a Happy Meal, your kid isn’t getting the school lunch they need.

Joan: Well, you know, that’s a good analogy, Colin. But unlike a company closing down, government shutdowns are dangerous, undemocratic, and immoral — especially in times of economic uncertainty like we are in right now. Americans from Philadelphia to Atlanta to San Antonio to Phoenix all want a government that works. When partisan extremists refuse to do what they are elected and paid to do in Congress — keep the government running — and instead choose to use a shutdown to pass undemocratic laws that further divide the country, it only hurts us all.

Eilis: That’s right. And now we’re currently watching this play out in real time. Over the past week, we’ve navigated the storm of the recently averted shutdown, and then the subsequent ousting of the Speaker of the House. To help bring us up to speed, we’ve invited our NETWORK colleague, Government Relations Director Ronnate Asirwatham, to speak with us today.

Welcome Ronnate. We’re so happy to welcome you to Just Politics.

Ronnate Asirwatham: Thanks so much, Eilis.

Eilis: Thank you. I’m wondering, before we begin, can you maybe tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?

Ronnate: Sure. So as Eilis said, my name is Ronnate Asirwatham, I am the Government Relations Director at NETWORK. I am also the chief immigration lobbyist. I come with over 10 years of federal policy lobbying and working on appropriations. For the last 14 years, I’ve worked on different parts of appropriations. And appropriations is how you divide up the budget in the federal government.

One of my other identities is that I’m an immigrant, and I was also an asylum seeker, so that’s me.

Eilis: Thanks, Ronnate. So as we’ve just talked about, one of Congress’s jobs is to pass a budget that funds the federal government. And when they fail to do this, which is really the most basic function, the result is a government shutdown. Looking back in history, we know that this first happened during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when he wouldn’t sign a budget unless it included cuts to human needs programs. We saw it again in the 1990s and again in 2013 and 2018 to 2019. But for our listeners, can you explain why we have a government shutdown and why does it have to come to this?

Ronnate: Well, I mean, in one sentence, it doesn’t have to come to this. This government shutdown, of all government shutdowns, was on nothing. It was simply because the hard right faction in the House, an undemocratic minority controlling others, was trying to make sure that the government did not do its job. And the House especially did not do its job. Where this all started actually would be in the genesis of how we started the Congress: former Speaker McCarthy made sure that he kept his powers, that he became the Speaker, giving away all tools that he had to govern. The fact that one person could [now] bring a vote against him. So from that day onwards, we knew that this was just a power grab. It was to keep former Speaker McCarthy in power, and he would do anything to do that. And he would not govern…

I know the process. Why? Because it’s usually very set. It starts very early. We’re already talking about 2025. Everybody knows this. But when the House was supposed to be talking about its bills after the President sent its budget in March, in April, what we were being told was, no, we can’t speak about this because we’re spending too much money. And unless we stop that spending, we cannot go ahead and talk actually about anything else. So there were always excuses to stop the movement, to stop actual discussion on doing the work. And that is what brought us to this day. So it wasn’t something that happened in a week. It was not something that happened in a month. This was set in motion from the beginning where we had a very hard right cabal, as I said, an undemocratic minority trying to make sure government did not work.

Eilis: Wow. That is so interesting because I’ve heard from some people that they felt like this was just something that happened overnight or in the last week, and not looking at it as part of this process that was begun almost a year ago.

And so as we’re thinking about that, I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how with a shutdown, it doesn’t just impact members of the federal workforce—that what we’re looking at is an impact to our entire country. As Joan said earlier, people in every town and every city across this country will be impacted by a shutdown. It’ll affect people who receive food or medical or housing assistance. And I was just in Louisville, Kentucky where we heard from people whose lives, and the lives of people in their community, are impacted by these programs. If they don’t have food assistance or housing assistance, they’re going to be homeless. They’re not going to be able to get to their jobs. It’ll be a continual effect.

But, we also just averted a shutdown. So where do we stand in this kind of gap now? Is it cause for celebration? Are we out of the woods? Or do we need to kind of double down and really focus on our work ahead?

Ronnate: Well, the celebration was for the weekend. The work is now and the work must continue.

The issue is, the government’s job is actually to pass budgets, balanced budgets. The government’s job is not to cause a shutdown and then ask for applause when it averts it. So this is the issue. The issue is that moving forward, first of all, in the next week, actually, the first job that the House would have to do is to elect a Speaker, as Joan said. But that is cutting into these 45 days. That would be the 10th day, if a Speaker is elected next Wednesday, as it’s supposed to be. It’ll be 10 days out of this 45 days. So we only have 35 days more to discuss this.

When we look at the work that especially the House has been doing—and let me explain, the work that Congresspeople, politicians, these right-wing, hard-right Republicans have been doing is negligible. I’m not talking about the staff in the House—they are the most hardworking of people—but I’m talking about the politicians. So when we look at the work that the politicians have done, it is almost negligible, to focus on what they’re supposed to be doing, which is passing the budget. We are facing a bigger danger now because we’re looking at budgets, we’re looking at bills, that have cuts across the board.

The cuts are to all social programs. It is not to other programs that we might not want. These cuts are to programs that affect us. Right? And again, this is why I’m saying the House, especially the hard right, is not doing its job. Anybody who has put a budget together understands that it’s easy to cut. But the House’s job is to keep a balanced budget, to tell us how the dollars can reach its maximum point that supports us as an American community to thrive—not simply cut. Cutting is easy. Actually having a balanced budget is important.

What we are seeing now is that the hard right is pushing for the government to take away not just food, but fruits and vegetables from new moms and children. Right? That is what we’re seeing. That is what’s on the table for discussion. That is what we have been talking about. And that is why I’m saying that the House didn’t do their job because that is not a serious way to work on the budget.

Yes, so that is the biggest problem there. We see these cuts… There’s a housing bill that might be on the table that has 43% cuts for housing programs. And on top of all of these cuts, politicians, the Republican hard right, cannot explain to you why they’re doing this. I’ve worked in many other countries; nobody takes food away from children. The fact that the richest country in the world is having this conversation of like, “let’s take nourishing food away from children, and it’s OK.” It’s not. You’re not hearing this “why,” because there’s this other shiny object that the politicians try to distract you with. And it’s like, “oh, immigration, this is the fault. The fact that food is being taken away from you is a fault of someone coming over the border. The fact that food is being taken away from you is a fact of the Ukrainians.” And that is not true. Ukrainian funding is just 2% of this bill. 2% of the entire budget. And again, it’s like, we don’t need to cut these things. We need to know how to make the dollar work for everyone. And definitely, many people will be like, “OK, we really need to make sure that children get food on the table.”

And I can add a story of what is happening in the world today. When I say that the people are not being given food, the Washington Post had a story yesterday about the rise in a liver condition for children. It’s almost coming to a pandemic. And one of the reasons for that rise is because children do not have nutritious food. There was a story about a girl, Dani. Both her parents work, but they have to drive 17 miles to find nutritious, affordable food. Is that the country that we want?

Eilis: Wow, hearing you talk about those cuts is just unconscionable. You know, how are we to care for the common good, to care for one another, to live in community with one another, when it really feels like politicians and the government are just trying to pit us one against the other to then achieve their goal? It’s what you said—having food, fresh fruits and vegetables for children, we can do that and have an immigration system that works. We can do that and still have housing for families, or school. It’s all of that together that we need.

I’m wondering if you can just talk a little bit more about how these extremist politicians are really trying to divide us to achieve their goal versus bringing us together. Because one of the huge things about the short-term continuing resolution was how people like NETWORK and all of our other allies were able to come together.

Ronnate: Sure. The danger is even more now. The danger is even more because the politicians are getting ready to start working on these bills that they should have been working on in June and July, to bring to the table what they will do. The cuts are so deep, and it’s for social programs, right? So it’s going to hurt us, like I said. It’s going to hurt new mothers, it’s going to hurt people with housing needs, it’s going to hurt people who work two jobs and need this kind of support. These cuts are mainly for people who rely on the government, and for government processes that people are not quite familiar with.

For example, the IRS. The funding for the IRS has been increased. And believe it or not, this is a good thing. Because if the IRS has more money, it can go after the biggest tax evaders. Most of the tax evaders who are billionaires, they’re not people who pay like $2,000 in tax. No, there are people who don’t pay billions in tax and owe us, owe this country, billions in tax. So if the IRS has more money, they can do their job better. But this government, the House Republicans especially, are trying to cut that as well.

So the impact of these kinds of cuts affect us. And we won’t like it. Clearly we don’t. But so that we won’t understand this, so that we are not focused on this devastating impact it’ll have to us, it’ll have to our health, and it’ll have to our neighbors’ health, you have these little distractions, these shiny little things. As I was telling you, the reasons for the House, especially the House hard right, not doing its job were varying. This job should have been done. We are now at October 5th, and we should have had all these things to look at by July. So first we were told, oh, we’re spending too much. And who’s spending too much? The most vulnerable, the poor people, we’re spending too much on them. You know, those other people—as in people who are poor. Second of all, then we were told, oh, we are not spending too much on immigrants, but immigrants are taking these things away. Right? That is why we need to have all these terrible border policies to stop immigrants from coming, to make sure we deport immigrants, to make sure we expel children and detain them. Because it’s them, we have to spend on them and that is why you get your cuts. And then thirdly, now suddenly it became Ukraine. So, they’re moving the goalpost, they’re trying to show these different populations and whip up xenophobic conversations, just so that we won’t know that they are making these terrible, unsustainable, and unnecessary cuts to all our social programs.

Eilis: Listening to you explain all of this, Ronnate, I’m really reminded of what Reverend Dr. Angela Johnson, who’s a Presbyterian pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, said last week. She reminded us that if one part of the community suffers, all parts of the community suffer. And if one part is glad, then all parts are glad. And I think that’s a really important framework for us to keep in mind as we do this budgeting process.

For a pivot, I’m wondering if you can talk about what we will need to expect from Congress in these next 45 days or so, until the continuing resolution ends, and how can we all work together to make sure that all members of our community thrive.

Ronnate: Thanks, Eilis, sure. So in the next 45 days, as I said, which has now become 35 days of where we would be discussing these bills. As I said, that time, if it is 35 days and we are able to elect a Speaker next Wednesday, the danger is bigger, because of the politics of what we just had and the politics that are shaping the bills that are on the floor.

Let me explain more clearly. The danger is that the hard right feels that they have a lot more power than they do. This undemocratic minority of a minority—and let’s not forget our Federalist Papers, where we did not want the tyranny of the minority! This is what is happening right now. They feel that they have a lot more power. And then to elect a Speaker—are we going to go back to the days when people want to govern and Speakers want to govern, and one person will not be able to throw out the Speaker? That is a big deal, and a big deal is what concessions then would be given again to this very small, extreme minority. So that would be one part of the politics.

The other part of the politics is that we have on the House floor what has been passed in the House. The House passed three bills already, just last Thursday night. But you know, were they serious? I’ve been saying that the House, especially this extreme minority, has not been serious about doing their job. They have not been doing their job. And then, you know, people come back to me saying, “oh, they passed three bills!” Those bills are not workable. Let me give you a couple of examples.

First of all, in the Department of Homeland Security bill, which I know very well, they are changing asylum as we know it. They are detaining children. This cannot be done by appropriations—I mean, it can be done because it’s a law, but should it be done through an appropriations bill that’s going fast? If we are changing laws that have been around for 40 years, should we not have a bigger discussion? So that is just one part of it.

The second part of it is that, you know, one of the bigger threats to this country is the issues with democracy and elections. There’s quite a threat to elections integrity in this country. I am not saying this; every government department has said this. Yet, what is in that Department of Homeland Security bill? That the person in charge of election integrity will be paid only $1. Now tell me, is that a serious bill? Is that a serious bill? This is what I’m saying. When people come together after this next week to discuss bills, we have to make sure that those are not the bills that they’re discussing.

And so the danger is that when people come together, they’ll be like, “oh no, we have just 35 days, this has already been discussed, that has already been discussed.” But it hasn’t been discussed. It has just been put forward. “We are running out of this money. We need this and let’s cut..,” but again, the job of the government is not to cut. You know, my three-year-old niece, she can be like, “oh, here’s a red pen. Let me cut these things off!” No, their job is to balance the budget. Their job is to make the money work for us to have communities thrive.

When they come together, and hopefully they do come together and work on these bills, then the base is worse than what it is now. Right now we are working on last year’s budget. We have a continued resolution for that. So that’s safe for the next 45 days. But the danger is these cuts. Every bill that comes out from the House has cuts up to 30 to 50 percent and sometimes 80. The schools’ program has been cut by 80 percent. Really?  Is that serious? Each bill has serious cuts that make those programs unsustainable. And that is the danger that we need to push back on.

So, pivoting to what we can do. The reason that we averted a shutdown was not because of the benevolence of anybody, not because suddenly there was a light bulb that went off in the heads of the right-wing, really hard-right extremists. It was because of people power. You called people, you called your politicians, you called your representatives, you made sure that this government is a representative government and you called them. You wrote to them, you emailed them. You held rallies and said, no, we don’t want cuts and we will not be divided. We don’t want cuts and we will not be like, “take away money from feeding children and put more money on the border.” Who says that? Nobody, right. So, that is what you said. You said that we will not be divided, and you called.

And now the danger is strong. And we thank you for doing this, each one of us, because it is what averted the shutdown. It is what made people think, OK, let’s just continue what we had in the budget that was passed last December. That is what made them do it. It was your power.

And unfortunately, we have to ask again, because the danger is worse than we had two weeks ago—not only because of what’s on the table, but because this will last and this will become law for the whole of next year. And who knows what will happen after that, right? So the danger is worse. So please, what we ask you is to continue, to push forward, to call, to join our rallies, and make sure that your voice is heard. Your voice is important. Make sure that Congress knows that we are looking for a budget that would help our communities thrive with no divisions.

Eilis: Wow, thank you, Ronnate. This is such a rallying cry for our field, for our listeners, and for everyone to recommit to building a thriving, inclusive community where all of our needs are met across the country. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ronnate: Thank you.

Colin: You know, what struck me about the showdown over this government shutdown was just how completely unnecessary it was. It was like ultimately this stunt was just pretty stupid.

Joan:  You know, that’s exactly right, Colin. It was a very dangerous stunt. And if we’re concerned about the present and future health of our system of government, we all need to be more alarmed about the fact that some of the very leaders we’ve elected in this country are trying to stop the functioning of that government and ultimately to destroy our democracy. We can’t let that happen.

But the good news is that we, the majority, have the power. Who we elect matters. And as we prepare for the 2024 election, we need to remember that we, the people, have the power to elect leaders who respect our freedoms, who share our values, and will always work to protect, promote, and expand our democracy. All it takes is for everyone to vote for candidates who will ensure a more equitable, inclusive country where everyone can thrive.

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