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Shutdown Gives Americans New Reason To Hate Washington

Wed, October 2, 2013 9:11pm

Story by Alan Greenblatt


St. Louis insurance broker Larry Abernathy says he considers himself "a moderate, or a fence dweller" and says it's a shame that "regular people" don't have lobbying influence in Washington.

St. Louis insurance broker Larry Abernathy says he considers himself "a moderate, or a fence dweller" and says it's a shame that "regular people" don't have lobbying influence in Washington.

There's nothing like a government shutdown to make people angry about government, or at least the politicians who are running things.

"The people we have in the Senate and the House of Representatives, I don't know who they're working for, but they're not working for us," says Larry Abernathy, an insurance broker in St. Louis. "I think both parties are useless."

It's a widely shared belief. People in this Midwestern city may be far removed from the back and forth of the budget debate that has paralyzed Washington, but the partial shutdown is very much on their minds.

Residents say they're disgusted — and that their blood pressure is rising.

The story has led local news coverage. Office workers are talking about it in conference calls and sharing links to angry commentaries via email and social media. Area mayors seem to be shaking their head in dismay over the poor performance of their big-league political peers.

"They're seeing it in action," says Maggie Crane, communications director for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, referring to the shuttered local monuments and the potential harm to nearby military bases. "It's not some abstract idea."

St. Louis is a Democratic city, so many people say they hold House Speaker John Boehner or Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz more responsible for the current gridlock than President Obama.

The most commonly expressed sentiment, however, seems to be a plague on both parties' houses.

"It looks bad for the country as a whole when the leadership cannot work out their differences," says Jim Yount, an IT worker from Florissant who has a son serving in the military.

Fears For The Economy

The shutdown doesn't dominate all local conversation — not with the Cardinals in the baseball playoffs.

But the St. Louis region, despite being home to nearly 3 million people, remains a fairly tightknit community. Many people know someone — or know someone who knows someone — among the 25,000 federal workers in the area.

"I think it's crazy those people aren't going to have work for three weeks, or longer," says Joel McPeak, a credit analyst at a bank where a co-worker has a mother out on furlough. "I also think it's crazy that they had that deadline and weren't able to come to some kind of a conclusion."

He's especially concerned that if no deal is reached in time to stave off a default on federal debt, it will severely damage the financial markets and the larger economy. Earl Smith, a construction worker at a downtown office renovation project, says when people are out of work long enough, some of them will come looking to take jobs in his field.

"When people are nervous about the economy, they don't come out and shop, and a government shutdown makes people nervous about the economy," says Jonesy Johnson, who works at Left Bank Books.

The bookstore's downtown location currently stocks a greeting card that says, "Sorry for the inconvenience, but we are closed due to irritation."

Causing Inconvenience

Mary Schaff thinks the partial government shutdown is a mistake. That may be bad news for the Republican Party.

"Congress is trying to represent the people, because the majority of people do not support Obamacare," Schaff says. "The Senate is more committed to doing what the president wants, instead of what the people want."

Nevertheless, Schaff, a stay-at-home mother in suburban Sunset Hills, believes that tying much of the federal budget to the health care debate is a bad idea. "I don't want a shutdown," she says. "They're just gridlocked."

On Tuesday, Schaff helped chaperone a group of sixth-graders to downtown St. Louis to view a museum exhibit. She expressed sympathy for visitors who won't have a chance to visit the area's national monuments — the Gateway Arch and the courthouse where Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, sued for their freedom in a famous slavery case.

Residents are finding that the shutdown, if it lasts, will inconvenience them in surprising ways. Local message boards catering to "ultrarunners," for instance, are lit up with news that races set to take place in national forests have been postponed indefinitely.

In The National Interest

For the most part, though, people are concerned about the bigger picture. They express disbelief that national politicians aren't able to put aside their differences long enough at least to keep the lights on.

"On the stump, when you're trying to be elected, you can say just about anything," says attorney Charles Bobinette. "When you take the oath of office, the better part of your nature should come out and you should think of the national interest, not getting re-elected."

Bobinette believes members of Congress should be more inconvenienced by the shutdown than anyone else, stripped of those services that they rely on directly. That would speed up their desire to make a deal, he says.

"The people who shouldn't be paid are the people in politics," says Yount, the IT worker. "They have no trouble cutting other people's salaries."

Yount says he's been on the road and hasn't paid enough attention to the details of the discussion to know which party specifically to blame.

"It is both sides — it's always going to be both sides — but the health care thing became the snowball that ran down the hill," says McPeak, the credit analyst.

John Ziesser agrees. An accountant from Marine, Ill., Ziesser describes himself as a "common sense" moderate and says that turning from crisis to crisis is no way to run a government.

"It's Einstein's definition of insanity," Ziesser says. "They passed a bill 40 times to end Obamacare. To do the same thing over and over again and expect different results is the definition of insanity."

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