Americans awoke to the sound of one hand clapping on Tuesday. While local governments were open for business, the other hand, the federal government, was largely unavailable because of a partial shutdown that began at midnight.
The full impact of the closings won’t be felt by most Americans for days, perhaps weeks, if the current deadlock in Washington goes on that long. Economists were warning that greater peril lies ahead as the deadline to increase the national debt limit is reached on Oct. 17.
On the first day of the shutdown, security and emergency forces at airports and the heavily patrolled borders continued to be paid and essential personnel were going to work. Those deemed less vital to the nation were put on furlough, however, wondering when they could return and if they would be paid for the time lost.
Although potentially more dire consequences lay ahead, other, less ominous effects were unfolding Tuesday.
From Lady Liberty in New York Harbor to the rugged mountains of the West and the Denali Wilderness surrounding Mt. McKinley in Alaska, national parks were closing Tuesday, meaning that tourists, hikers and other outdoors enthusiasts were going to barred from entering and those already inside will be asked to leave.
Monuments, like Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, were closing because of the dispute which had the future of Obamacare at its heart. In just one of the day’s ironies, the exchanges offering competitive insurance plans went online on Tuesday, hours after the government went into sleep mode because of the dispute between Democrats and Republicans over funding the healthcare overhaul.
The shutdown was strangely captivating to Marlena Knight, an Australian visiting Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. She told reporters that she was confounded that the impasse focused on the nation’s healthcare system — an indispensable service in her home country.
“We can’t imagine not having a national health system,” said Knight at the park, home to the Liberty Bell. “I just can’t believe that this country can shut down over something like a national health system. Totally bizarre, as an Australian, but fascinating,” she told reporters.
Foreigners, like many Americans, couldn’t seem to grasp the subtleties of the U.S. political impasse.
Nicolas Demorand, editor of Libération, a left-leaning newspaper in France (where they have had five republics, not to mention a king and Napoleon Bonaparte) questioned the apparent impossibility of a government shutting down.
The idea that ‘‘on a given date, at a specific time, overnight, the state may be partly ‘disconnected’ would appear to be unthinkable. Something from science fiction, or simple madness,’’ he wrote.
The science fiction front was one of those taking a hit Tuesday.
NASA, the agency that is in charge of space exploration, was on furlough. Thousands of workers at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida were told to stay home. If the shutdown goes on for a while, their possible pay losses could have a ripple effect on the economy. There is also the personal pain of having to scrounge to meet house and car payments.
In Florida, only nine of 2,078 civil servants will report to work at Kennedy Space Center during the shutdown, according to the agency, the Orlando Sentinel reported. That means the processing of a new Mars spacecraft, dubbed MAVEN, will “pretty much” come to a halt, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told the newspaper. If the shutdown goes on, it could jeopardize the scheduled mid-December launch. If that window shuts, it would be two more years before Earth and Mars line up to another shot.
Emergency personnel were exempted from the shutdown, but government officials estimated that 800,000 federal employees were told to stay home. About half were civilian employees of the Defense Department, though service members will continue to get paid.
National Guard soldiers rebuilding washed-out roads in flood-crippled Colorado were on the job, but civilian workers needed to process federal aid requests were expected to be on furlough, which could slow down the process of financial recovery. Nearly 3,000 Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors were furloughed along with most of the National Transportation Safety Board’s employees. The NTSB investigates accidents including crashes of plane, trains and other vehicles.
Marc Cevasco, who works in the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, told the Associated Press as he waited for a bus that the uncertainty of how long the shutdown would last made his life complicated.
“Even if it’s just shut down for a week that’s a quarter of your pay this month. That means a lot to a lot of people,” he said.
The shutdown was the first of the government since the GOP fought with President Clinton in the winter of 1995-1996. Among the current casualties are those needing their daily fix of cute.
The Smithsonian museums website noted that “all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed.” On the zoo’s website, panda Mei Xiang could be seen snuggling with her weeks-old cub through the morning, until the addictive video feed was abruptly stopped around 8 a.m.
And if you are looking for a goat to the current political mess, you don’t have to go further than the Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook, N.J., where 28 Nubian goats were carted off to an upstate New York farm because of the shutdown. The herd of goats had been grazing their way through the poison ivy-infested Gateway National Recreation Area in Sandy Hook, according to the Asbury Park Press.
Meanwhile, while the government was partially shut, the most extensive government domestic program in decades – Obamacare – went online as scheduled. Republicans have insisted that they want to defund the program and were willing to allow the government to close down to prove it.
The insurance exchanges began across the country, with even President Obama bracing for technological problems.
“I would suspect that there will be glitches,” the president told NPR in an interview. “This is 50 states, a lot of people signing up for something. And there are going to be problems. And I guarantee you, there will be problems because we’ve got precedent. When Massachusetts, just one state, set this up, it took quite a long time. It took several months before everything was smoothed out.”
A series of polls have shown that most Americans overwhelmingly oppose Congress shutting down the federal government as a way to stop the 2010 health care law. The latest poll on Tuesday shows voters opposing the shutdown by 72% to 22%.
However, there was a silver lining in the cloud of smoke obscuring the issue, according to a less scientific survey on Buzzfeed. Many teens thought that the shutdown meant that pot would now be legal.
Not so much.