Anyone who's seen a disaster movie set at sea is familiar with the phrase, "women and children first," meaning they are the first to be put in lifeboats.
But in the real-life disaster that in the Republican Tea Party's government shutdown, "women and children first" is the order in which victims of the shutdown are selected.
In one sense, the government shutdown is all about the worst kind of politics -- right-wing politicians using hostage-taking tactics to advance an agenda that they can't pass any other way. They have tried and failed to get it through Congress since 2011. The voters roundly rejected their agenda in the 2012 elections. So they threaten to destroy our economy unless they get what they want. Can they get away with that?
I don't think so. Because in an important sense, the shutdown is not about politics -- it's about people. And people -- real people, people you know- -a re being hurt.
Item: Over 8.9 million women and children under five (including 53 percent of infants in the U.S.) living near or below the poverty line rely on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC for healthy food, breastfeeding support, infant formula and other necessities dispensed at clinics nationwide.
The government shutdown suspended federal funding for WIC, putting an already vulnerable population at a frightening level of risk.
Forbes quoted Margaret Saunders, who oversees WIC in Chicago and surrounding Cook County:
"America is not realizing how many low-income pregnant women and children we have in this country," she said. "They have no safety net. These women are trying to have a healthy pregnancy, and they're asking, 'how am I going to feed my family?' It's a terrifying moment, and it's beyond my control. At our agency, we have no cushion. If our funding stream stops we will temporarily suspend service."
Item: The federal Office of Justice Programs (OJP) has been shut down, denying federal funds to scores of domestic violence programs across the U.S. that are allocated under the Violence Against Women Act. These programs had already been jeopardized by the sequester, now they are on life support. According to Think Progress:
Domestic violence programs have been grappling with severe budget cuts for some time. Even before sequestration, nearly 80 percent of shelters nationwide reported getting less funding from the government, and 43 percent said that lower funding would result in pulling back on services. Sequestration meant a $20 million reduction in funding that was predicted to result in 70,120 fewer victims getting access to recovery programs and shelters.
But more and more women have been seeking help as the same economic troubles caused by the recession and stagnant recovery have increased and intensified abuse. Eight in 10 shelters report an increase in women seeking help and nearly 60 percent say the abuse is more violent than before the crisis. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of women are staying longer with their abuser for economic reasons. After sequestration, many programs told ThinkProgress that the likely consequence of budget cuts would be more abuse and, ultimately, more deaths. Those consequences are likely to intensify while the government remains shut down.
Item: There are some 1,600 Head Start programs around the country providing education, health, nutrition and other services to roughly 1 million low-income children and their families. Cutbacks caused by the sequester have already eliminated services for some 57,000 children this year. And now, as this article in the New Yorker details:
In parts of the country, programs have already stopped providing services. The National Head Start Association has estimated that an additional nineteen thousand children aren't in preschool now. Last week, low-income families in central and northern Florida found out that their children's Head Start programs had closed. Nationally, nearly two dozen major Head Start programs due to get their grants on October 1st have been affected. (The timing of the funding is staggered, so for each month that goes by without a resolution to the standoff, more state programs will run out of money.)
In recent days, we've seen the Republican House try to score points by voting to restore certain parts of the government that are receiving a lot of attention -- the national parks, NIH, veterans' benefits, even WIC. It's as if the House is the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz and they've suddenly acquired a heart. NPR said it's given the House a "twilight zone" feel as" Republicans cheer for fully funding parts of the government they have typically argued need a trim."
We're not fooled by this cynical political posturing. Especially when we see what the Republican House tried to do in one of their final attempts at legislative extortion before the shutdown. They voted to remove coverage for birth control from the Affordable Care Act. NOW called it "hide and sneak" as Republicans tried to enact birth control restrictions while hoping no one was paying attention. (For NOW's full statement, click here.)
If there was ever any doubt that the Tea Party is the most destructive force to dominate politics in generations, these past few weeks have underlined the message. Even some of the business community's top lobbyists and executives are expressing outrage. The New York Times quoted a lobbyist who has woken up to the fact that the politicians the business community has been supporting with campaign contributions can no longer be counted on to do their bidding:
"We ask them to carry our water all the time," said one corporate sector lobbyist, who demanded anonymity in order to speak frankly about the relationship with Republicans. "But we don't necessarily support them 100 percent of the time. And what has happened is the rise of an ideological wing that is now willing to stand up to business interests."
Well, we can't have that -- lawmakers who aren't afraid to stand up to business! Or can we?
Next year, voters will have a choice between electing a new majority in Congress that will be more "business-friendly," or deciding that the CEOs, the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the Koch brothers have done quite enough damage to our country, thank you very much. We will have the option of putting in power a progressive majority that will reverse decades of attacks on women, working families, people of color and seniors. I think that people will be so disgusted by the current crowd of Tea Party puppets that they'll be ready to hear a new message in 2014.
In next year's elections, "women and children first" won't mean we're the first ones to suffer -- we'll be leading the way to a better future.
Follow Terry O'Neill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Terryoneill