by Paul Deines
We awoke on last Tuesday without a functioning government. Okay, you probably could argue that our government has been essentially non-functioning for some time. But last Tuesday, it became literally non-functioning.
The images in our papers, on our T.V.s and on our news sites have since been of barricades in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The current shutdown of our government has meant 800,000 federal workers furloughed without pay and numerous agencies and programs closed (potentially including the program that provides milk to poor children). President Obama has taken a hard line on the whole thing, and Republican leadership staged a cute “where’s the other side?” photo op (see above).
Moments like this move otherwise calm people to lob accusations at ideological opposites, their elected officials, and the world in general. It thrusts into the spotlight inequity that no one could logically stomach: government workers left unpaid while both the unemployed and the same Congress that allowed this to happen continuing to collect checks. In other nations, shutdowns like this are not possible because a coalition government would be dissolved in a parliamentary system if a budget deal weren’t reached. I’ve spoken to many people who on October 1st weren’t exactly sure why the government shut down.
My standard response is concise: Congress needs to authorize funding for government operations. The House of Representatives kept sending continuing resolutions (a.k.a CRs, or temporary funding measures) that made the cash contingent on Obamacare being either defunded or delayed. The Senate refused to accept these terms ( and of course, President Obama would not have signed a CR that undid his signature legislation), and at the end of September, the money ran out.
Pretty simple. That is really the alpha and omega of why you can’t visit Yellowstone or the Smithsonian right now. And once the House, Senate, and President Obama agree on the terms of a continuing resolution, everything will start up again. But let’s dig deeper to understand how this all became such a logjam. A few key points:
1) Congress hasn’t managed to pass a budget in the Obama era. I posit that in 2008/2009 this was because we were in perpetual crisis mode. During the height of the post-Lehman panic, our federal government was furiously throwing money at the economy to maintain consumer spending and stem uncertainty in the market. As a Keynesian at heart, this makes absolute sense to me, but it doesn’t leave much room from sensible budgeting. But the Democrats bear some blame in this current shutdown because they abdicated responsibility for a comprehensive budget during their brief window controlling both houses of Congress and the White House. In 2010, we began our current era of divided government after the Republicans became the majority-party of the House. With the Tea Party driving conversation on the right, this meant withholding federal funding in exchange for tax cuts and spending reductions. It also meant draconian Paul Ryan-style budgets meant to cut the Federal government to the bone, budgets that passed the House easily and were swatted down in the Democrat-led Senate.
2) Before 1981, not passing a budget or CR did not mean the government shut down. It was Jimmy Carter’s Attorney General, Benjamin Civiletti, who determined that if federal funding ran out the government had to shut down. This forever bound a working Washington to recurring Congressional approval.
3) Even with this onus on Congress, there haven’t been many shutdowns. There were 16 under Reagan and the first President Bush, always over budget cuts and tax increases, but none lasted more than a couple days. The longest was, of course, the much cited three-week closure of 1995. The new Republican House under Newt Gingrich initially clashed with then-President Bill Clinton on (what else?) the issue of government spending. Clinton refused to sign the House budgets that included Republican amendments relating to Medicare, the death penalty, and TORT reform. The resulting shutdown was a PR nightmare for the Republicans and is often cited as a key factor in Clinton’s ’96 reelection. Yet, the threat of suspending federal operations has remained the go-to tactic for the Republican House in the Obama era.
4) As of this past week… the Republicans are out of demands. They pushed this to the brink because after October 1st, the health care exchanges of the Affordable Care Act went into effect. 4.8 million Americans visited the sites in the first 24 hours. In short, Obamacare is now, pragmatically, the law of the land. To repeal it now would be actively to take coverage away from citizens. That’s why the final two gambits of the Republican caucus in the House involved delaying implementation. Well, now that the exchanges are up, the conversation has shifted further to chained CPI, a tax on medical supplies and something involving the Keystone Pipeline.
And that is the maddening thing. Those of us that believe government is a worthy entity that ensures the common good groan to see it shuttered for ever-changing reasons. Is this a last-ditch effort to thwart Obamacare or a Cruz-ian howl against the idea of government in general? It’s becoming clear that moderate Republicans signed on for this brinksmanship to gain more leverage in the far-more-dire debt ceiling fight coming in mid-October. God help us if we’re still in shutdown-mode when the country faces default.
Call me partisan, but these shutdowns are the work of
libertarian-style conservatives, be they the Reagan contingent of the eighties,
Gingrich’s Contract of America class, or the Tea Party. The Hastert Rule –
that no legislation will be brought to the House floor without a majority of
Republicans supporting it – has made things much worse. It means that the 49
members of the Tea Party caucus could force Speaker John Boehner to take up the
anti-Obamacare CRs and guarantee a shutdown. They are the reason he won't call a vote on that mythical "clean CR" (one without additional provisions) even though it would almost certainly pass with Democrat and Republican votes. That would be called bipartisanship, and last I heard it's something the American people are desperate for.
So, if we don’t want this to happen again, I suggest we limit the number of these folks influencing the budget discussions. Political passion is admirable, but Tea Party Republicans’ idea of governance is like the Bolsheviks at the Winter Palace. Their scorched-earth tactics aren’t at the service of building a leaner, more efficient, or more sustainable Washington. They are concerned only with outflanking Obama, which is why suddenly they seem concerned with government worker pay, social service food programs, and Head Start.
This shutdown should serve is evidence that the Tea Part contingent of this Congress does not care about the wellbeing of our nation. Let’s try to remember that next November.