Shutdown mania

Shutdown mania
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The legislative machinations of the US Congress’ most recent efforts to keep the American government funded for another… oh, month or two, are unfolding so quickly it’s hard to offer a useful summary of what’s been happening, let alone what’s going to.

As I write this, the head of the White House budgetary office (who is apparently in charge of such things) has just released an official decree declaring all non-essential services of the United States federal government shut down until further notice. Panic sweeps a sleepy nation! But how’d we get here?

Basically, every so often Congress needs to pass some kind of funding bill, ideally a year-long budget, but these days usually a short-term “Continuing Resolution” (CR) stopgap, in order for the United States government to be legally able to finance itself. If Congress can’t pass such a thing, the multitude of federal agencies that rely on Congressionally-approved funding — everything from NASA to the passport office — have to temporarily suspend operations until the pipeline of cash they need to pay their employees and spend money on whatever it is they do starts flowing freely once more. The New Republic has a nice little FAQ with more details about CRs and shutdowns, and how they wound up as Washington’s only two options.

Anyway, since in the year 2013 the US legislature is split between two parties and two chambers, the crux of Congress’ current inability to get a CR through the tube has centred around the Republicans and Democrats’ vastly different ideas of what such legislation should look like.

The Dems, for their part, favor the so-called “clean” option, a CR that does nothing more than authorize the funding necessary to keep the federal government chugging till mid-December. The GOP, in contrast… well, the fact that the answer to that question is even ambiguous is where all the problems arise.

Broadly speaking, the Republicans want a trade. They’ll give the Democrats approval for their CR, sure, but conservatives have to get something they want, too (avoidance of a billion-dollar-a-day government shutdown apparently not being sufficient). The current preference is taking some sort of large bite out of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — a “gutting” of it, in the President’s words.

On Sunday, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a CR bill that also delayed implementation of Obamacare’s so-called “individual mandate” (the rule that says all Americans must own health insurance or face a fine) for a year, and repealed an obscure but unpopular  2% tax on medical devices. The Democrat-controlled Senate rejected it. Then on Monday, the House passed basically the exact same bill a second time — only this time it also stripped federal health care subsidies for the staffers of elected officials — and the Senate once again rejected that, too.

The Senate has no interest in playing along. “We are not going to do anything other than wait for them to pass our CR,” said Senate boss Harry Reid. There will be no negotiations with Republican “anarchists,” he said. Ditto, echoed the President. “Voting to pay America’s bills is not a concession to me. That’s not doing me a favor,” he said.

Greetings from standoff city.

I’ve commented in the past that American politics seem to be moving away from their unique (exceptional?) constitutional traditions and getting more and more blandly parliamentary these days, in the sense that the power of party leaders seems to be growing, the tolerance for ideological freedom among individual lawmakers seems to be lessening, and the transfer of executive power from the White House to Congress seems to be quickening.

The irony is that this breakdown of Congressional tradition is almost entirely the result of the Tea Party, the faction of the GOP legislative caucus supposedly most dogmatic in its allegiance to the norms of the Constitution. In the case of the CR battle, TP behavior seems to be informed by a few particularly dubious presumptions about how the United States should be run:

1) Congress (in fact, just the House of Representatives) is a more legitimate body than the presidency, therefore the House should always seek to undermine the powers of the Oval Office and increase their own.

Since approving the CR is literally just about, as Obama himself has said, Congress “paying its bills” for spending they’ve previously authorized, much of the Tea Party’s willingness to fight the CR is simply part of their larger quest to achieve legislative goals by blackmailing the executive branch. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate, it’s a mindset that reflects a throwback to pre-Revolutionary days — in England – when Parliament had to bully the king with threats of budget vetoes and whatnot in order to get him to approve various unrelated things the common people wanted. This “conflict theory” approach to governance, needless to say, loses a lot of its legitimacy when the modern-day equivalent of the King has just been re-elected with 65 million votes.

2) The two parties should always vote opposite ways on all issues. There is no such thing as “good of the country” legislation around which both parties should naturally coalesce. Republicans who vote with Democrats are always sell-outs, and have indeed abdicated their primary responsibility as the opposition party, which is to oppose, period.

There’s little doubt that a CR could have been passed ages ago if Speaker Boehner had just allowed what we in Canada sometimes call a “free vote” in the House, in which all members of the legislature are free to vote however they want. Had such a free vote been called on the CR, it’s clear there would probably be enough moderate Republicans and Democratic votes to form a workable majority, and then quickly pass the approved funding bill on to the Senate and White House.

In this current era, alas, the House Republican leadership has come to embrace the obstructionist “Hastert Rule” doctrine that only when legislation meets the approval of the “majority of the majority” — that is, the majority of Republican Congressmen within the Republican caucus — can bills be brought to the floor for a vote. Anything less is to allow the possibility of bipartisan legislation, which, of course, would never do. Only three times in the 113th Congress, in fact, has Speaker Boehner tolerated free votes: authorizing aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, approving the Violence Against Women Act, and — perhaps most portentously? — attempting to resolve the 2012 “fiscal cliff” crisis.

3) Members of the Republican caucus should be discouraged from holding independent or idiosyncratic opinions, and instead conform blindly to a certain finite “party ideology” and the various party “leaders” that decree it.

One of the biggest sideshows in the CR fight was last week’s kinda-sorta filibuster by Senator Ted Cruz, in which the man spoke for 21 hours straight about the need to defund Obamacare. As many wags noted at the time, this was an entirely pointless exercise since no one in the Senate was even debating that issue. It only really makes sense in the context of Cruz’s personal ambition; namely, that he sees himself as some sort of de facto leader of the Tea Party faction of the GOP, and thus a man entitled to set his party’s agenda from the top down.

There was an interesting story in National Review about how Cruz, as de facto leader, successfully convinced a significant bloc of House Republicans to reject the authority of John Boehner and the Republican Speaker’s plan to quickly approve the CR in favor of Cruz’s pet project of making everything conditional on weakening Obamacare in some way. This backstabbing has apparently made Cruz enormously unpopular with basically everyone in his party who matters, but consolidated his power over everyone else. Future coverage of tight Congressional votes will thus care a great deal about Ted Cruz’s opinion.

Amid all these structural changes to politics as usual, a notable demand the Tea Party is decidedly not making is any call for a true three-party system. Even though the evidence has been steadily mounting that the TP does not have the Republican Party’s best interests as even a tertiary motivation (the CR shenanigans are polling terribly), and indeed, enjoys warring with the “Republican establishment” almost as much as with the Democrats, its leaders ultimately understand that the road to establishing a genuine third party in America would be dauntingly uphill. So instead they’ll happily go on exploiting the present generosities of America’s current two-party regime — particularly the ability of highly-motivated outside groups to use open primaries as a means to practice what poli-sci people sometimes call “entryism,” and install extremist candidates — to get what they want.

The much-hated “establishment Republicans,” in contrast, have virtually no recourse. Simply operating as many would prefer, ie; a fairly stridently conservative party that nevertheless is willing to compromise with Democrats now and then, is today an open invitation for an entryist Tea Party primary challenge, so such natural inclinations must now be avoided at all costs. Boehner’s ability to survive a TP leadership challenge as speaker is often said to be hanging by a thread, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell is already being primaried back in Kentucky. Against such attacks, the establishmenters have no counter, and can only glumly buckle down and tack to the right (or at least the TP’s eccentric definition of “the right”), even on extraordinarily delicate issues threatening the very faith and credit of the United States itself.

From where I sit, it seems clear that America’s perennial legislative gridlock — which, regardless of what happens with the shutdown standoff, is only going to get worse come mid-October when the debt ceiling is scheduled for another raising — does require a three party regime to solve. I’m reminded of a famous quote from Canadian history warning against the destructive power of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” It’s a worry no less valid for two movements feuding within a single party.

Republicans clearly need liberation from the tyranny of the Tea Party. There is a difference between right-wing dogmatism and pragmatic conservatism, and it’s impossible to pursue the latter while subject to the veto of the former. But so too does the Tea Party deserve freedom from a Republican leadership that clearly hates and fears them. Two independent parties that sometimes vote together and sometimes don’t — but always respect each others’ sovereignty — is a common-sense plan to restore legislative sanity at such a critical time.

An economic crisis is bad enough. The country doesn’t need a constitutional one, too.


  1. David

    I'm wondering who the gentleman in the cartoon is? (Apparently, he's famous for being a heavy smoker?)

  2. Josh S

    John Boehner. Yes, he and Obama are both smokers (the President has quit recently. Perhaps they've shared a Camel Ultra Light.

    Boehner is a prolific smoker, back when it was allowed in the chamber, the place where people would smoke was called the "Boehner Bench."

  3. gattsuru

    Some minor complications that may be non-obvious at first reading.

    Firstly, the House actually is "more legitimate' for appropriations bills than the Senate or the Presidency. While not Constitutionally required to originate from the House, as revenue bills must, active tradition and the House itself has that only two appropriations bills (a 1953 DC funding bill and a 1962 Department of Agriculture bill) in two hundred and twenty-five years have originated in the Senate, and those not without controversy and not on such a large scale as to fund the entire federal government.

    Secondly, the use of these sort of bills for inter-branch and intraparty infighting is not exactly new: the 70s and early 80s were filled with these sort of battles and short-term shutdowns, sometimes over very similar matters.

  4. Jake_Ackers

    Yah but the Reagans and Clintons of the world lead. Even though Gingrich and Clinton hated each other, they managed to make it work. Even though there was a shutdown. Obama on the other hand just lets Congress do its own thing and then complains.

    I think JJ should make a comic in which Congress is a zoo or circus and they are just fighting. With Obama the timid or disinterested tamer/keeper.

  5. Dan

    If the Tea Party and the Republican Party do separate, which seems more likely every day, where does that leave the Republican and Democratic parties? Do they keep their official ideological positions, or does the presence of a solid-right party move the Republicans to the center and the Democrats further left?

  6. Zulu

    If the Tea Party and the Republican Party separate, the Democratic Party will be able to shift away from the center, which it has done in recent years to pass legislation from the fortified Republican Party, to the left. The Republican Party will be able to invite moderate Republicans back in, and perhaps become the most decisive party in the new parliamentary age of Congress – the deal breaker in legislative battles; siding with the Tea Party on many conservative issues, but siding with the Democratic party on those pragmatic issues that the Tea Party does not seem to care about as long as it harms the Democratic Party.

  7. ThePsudo

    That sounds like an excellent outcome. But I think the right-wing split would help Democrats win more three-way elections, and the split parties will eventually have to reunite the way Canada's PCs had to unite with the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance in order to win the Prime Ministership. The difference would be that the Tea Party would probably resist and obstruct any reunification plans just as they resist and obstruct anything else, and the Dems would rule for a generation.

  8. J.J.

    I actually originally meant to write something about the strategic considerations of a three party split. Can anyone think of a time in which a moderate Republican has won an election featuring a Democrat AND a Tea Partier? The only one I can think of offhand is Lisa Murkowski in Alaska

  9. Taylor

    Lieberman in CT, kinda: McCain-ite running against a party line Democrat and a hardline Republican.

  10. David Liao

    I think it depends heavily on whether the Democratic Party can maintain this post-Obama coalition it's gathered with moderates or if it will tack to the far left. So far, the party seems to be tacking center-left and daring independents to abandon ship which may be crucial in the 2016 Presidential election.

  11. Taylor

    When you're talking coalitions, there's no such thing as "moderates" or the "centre." Coalitions are defined groups that create a base, "moderates/centre" is a fancy term for unaffiliated who are convinced by the coalition.

  12. Jake_Ackers

    The Dems will lose independents and moderates. Hillary is unappealing. Christie is likeable and would light a fire under Congress. Moreover, all the moderates Dems have been losing primaries and sent to the curb by Pelosi.

  13. Dan

    I agree that the Democrats would shift to the left, but I do wonder if moderate Democrats would shift as well.

  14. Bill Stephens

    My 84-year-old mother is a lifelong moderate Democrat. I feel that she would continue with the Dems, as she identifies with the Biblical teaching that we are our brother's keepers.

    I am further left, perhaps a Social Democrat who believes in universal, single-payer health care like Canadians enjoy. I also believe in government ownership of natural utility monopolies, unlike Nestle, which has openly said that your drinking water should not be a public right, but be controlled for profit by private companies!

    Mom is still politically active (she is in her second term on our local school board, and wishes to run for the Pennsylvania state legislature next year!) and even proudly displays the vanity licence plate DEMCRT 1 on the back of her car (PA doesn't use front plates).

  15. Taylor

    Um, cool story.

  16. David Liao

    I think we're at least 25 years away from any major split in the Democratic Party but the Republican Party may face some serious schisms after this year.

  17. Jake_Ackers

    Yellow dog Democrats. Everyone on the left complains about people who just vote down party lines but the truth is that yellow dog democrats are the number one people who always do that. Mostly because of FDR. Eventually it will change with the newer generation.

  18. Jake_Ackers

    Preferential voting system would solve this problem. Tea Party would unite with the Constitution Party. Libertarians would grow into the 2nd or 3rd largest group. With Republicans only a regional party. Dems would stay together but the Greens would grow in a few places.

    Btw as soon as the Republicans nominate someone some what conservative, even Chris Christie or Rubio would do. They will all shut up.

  19. Rachel

    Before the 2012 election, Obama was largely helped by antics like these and nothing but negative news cycles. Just about all 2013, though, from Snowden to Syria, Obama's stupidity has gotten the bulk of negative news stories. Maybe if this keeps up long enough, the public will have a long-lasting impression of which is worse and the Republicans will feel enough negative effects in the next election to become a more competent opposition.

    It should be noted that if you are voting in such a way as to make all three branches of government not controlled by the same party, as Republican representatives have advocated, or voting for true gridlock, Democratic numbers usually count for less due to free votes and things like this.

  20. Rachel

    Before the 2012 election, Obama was largely helped by antics like these and nothing but negative news cycles. Just about all 2013, though, from Snowden to Syria, Obama's stupidity has gotten the bulk of negative news stories. Maybe if this keeps up long enough, the public will have a long-lasting impression of which is worse and the Republicans will feel enough negative effects in the next election to become a more competent opposition.

  21. Dave Turner

    It's only been a little over 24 hours. The only panic is on the part of the news media that fears there may not be a story for them to sell ad time over for as long as they want to.

  22. Bill Stephens

    I thought that the tea party didn't have a heart. They oppose Jesus' teachings to help the poor and heal the sick, and support the "money changers" instead of throwing them out of the temple.

    There are large numbers of racists in the tea party, and they also support the "I've got mine, to hell with you" mindset. They also oppose education, cutting it to the bone like my own state's governor, Tom Corbett.

    The Texas GOP even had a plank in its 2012 platform which called for the elimination of critical thinking skills from school curricula!

  23. billytheskink

    To be fair to the Texas Republicans, the plank opposing "critical thinking skills" was actually an opposition to the use of Outcome-Based Education programs in place of more traditional methods as the basis for public education. A poor choice of words on the plank writer's part, but not an outright dismissal of the use of everyday critical thinking in education.

    Being fair to the tea party is a ship that has probably sailed, at least partially due to the actions of many members…

  24. Jake_Ackers

    And yet the biggest Tea Party guy in 2012 was Herman Cain, a black guy. And btw you do realize that most college graduates vote Republican. Better education makes more Republican voters. Don't know about Tea Party voters but definitely Republican ones. The Tea Party has become the political scapegoat for the Left.

  25. Jack

    I'm appalled that my previous comment has been deleted. I cannot guess why.
    It didn't contain any insult, and even kept praising your overall insight, your terse and clean writing style and the unfolding of your argumentation.
    I couldn't have possibly imagined that merely expressing disagreement on the ideas you put forward or, to be precise, on the observations from which these ideas are expounded, would have been reason enough to have the comment deleted. I simply said that from my viewpoint I found your initial observations completely unfounded, thus saying that it's the first time in years that I completely disagree with most of the premises of one of your writings.
    Especially when I kept sincerely complimenting your work, which I love to follow. This usually only happens in the most liberal or partisan sites. I usually do not bother with reposting comments, but given this is one of my favourite sites, I felt this was needed.
    Hoping it had been an accident, and with esteem, cheers again for your work.

  26. J.j. McCullough

    I didn't delete your comment. Maybe it didn't post properly?

  27. Jon Bennett

    Odd that this article puts the onus entirely on Republicans. They've passed multiple bills to fund the government which Harry Reid won't even put up to a vote. And unlike Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, Obama refuses to meet with Congressional leaders and actively negotiate.

    As for calling this a break from Constitutional Traditions, it's quite the opposite. The House has the Power of the Purse for this very reason.

  28. Taylor

    Problem is all of those bills defund a key government initiative that was passed in 2010, approved by the Supreme Court, and was basically the main point of the 2012 election, which the Democrats won handily.

    It'd be like if Pelosi from 2006-2008 kept sending bills to the Republicans that ripped out Iraq War funding and threatened to shut down the government.

  29. Jon Bennett

    A bill passed unconstitutionally (all tax laws must start in the House), on a straight party line vote, by a lame duck congress by people who lost their seats due to supporting ObamaCare, amidst a lot of political scandals such as the Louisiana Purchase and Cornhusker Kickback. Since then, Obama has unilaterally and illegally given waivers and delays to political allies and big business, and yet it has never had more supporters than detractors in any poll.

    As for the individual mandate, Roberts calling it Constitutional doesn't make it so

  30. Monte

    No, but when Roberts is backed up by 4 other justices then yes, it IS constitutional… if the majority of justices in the supreme court declare that a bill is constitutional, then it's constitutional.

  31. Jon Bennett

    No. There is nothing in the Constitution that gives the Supreme Court the right to interpret the Constitution or void laws. Read your Article III.

  32. Jon

    If the Supreme Court doesn't have the right to interpret the Constitution or void laws, then who does? Congress? The President? I realise that the whole "Supreme Court serving as constitutional interpreter and safeguarder" business was controversial during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson (and FDR, for that matter), but surely it's been accepted by now? After all, its not as though anyone's been able to come up with a better solution.

    Furthermore, while the Constitution explicitly limits the powers of Congress by stating that "All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States", the same document is rather less restrictive when it comes to the Presidency ("The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America") and the Judiciary ("The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish"). Notice how the Constitution explicitly limits Congress' powers to those enumerated in the Constitution itself, but the President and Supreme Court are not explicitly limited.

  33. Jake_Ackers

    I think he meant that the Constitution cannot be reinterpreted but rather the laws have to be viewed if they are in line with the Constitution. And if they are not in line with the Constitution they are deemed unconstitutional. Not pick and choose. At least that is what i think he is saying.

    What is the old adage? The purpose of the Supreme Court is not to interpret the constitution but rather deem if the laws are constitutional.

  34. Jake_Ackers

    I never understood that though. That the Supreme Court only needs only a simply majority. The Supreme Court has the effectively ability to rewrite the Constitution at will and yet an amendment needs 75% and 2/3 to override the President. One Justice pretty much becomes a tyrant. I think it should be at least 2/3 and more than a 1 person difference. So the law has to be 6 to 3 to be Constitutional. If its only 5 to 4 then it is not. This is about the law, shouldn't there be some what agreement. 5/4 decisions always seem like a political decision, not a legal one.

  35. Virgil

    Very good point!

    In law circles there are some who think that Marbury meant that the Supreme Court had a right to say that it found laws unconsitutional, but that this didn't relieve the other branches from their interpretation of the constitution. In other words, no one in Congress can vote for a law they view violates the constitution….this is why they take the oath. If Congress passes a law, but the President thinks it unconstitutional he can and should veto it for that reason. Only after that does it go through Supreme Court Review….so under this interpretation, all three branches must agree or the law should go nowhere. Of course the rise of political parties was something the founders were hoping against and kinda confounded that calculus….

  36. Pete Zaitcev

    Even better, Democrats did not pass a budget when they had supermajority for 2 years. So basically they never wanted any kind of budget, but only an open money spigot. When Republicans point it out, suddenly they are obstructionists etc etc.

  37. Jake_Ackers

    Thank You. All I ask is for people to be consistent in their positions. And the Dems have dropped the ball on that. The Dems wouldn't have passed a budget regardless of Tea Party, Republicans or anyone else because they never did.

  38. Kwyjor

    Why did the comic change? Is the site still buggy?

  39. Jake_Ackers

    If you don't like Obamacare, you DEFINITELY should fund it. You know why? 1) The tax. Everyone will destroy the Dems in the ballot box come Nov. 2014. and even in June in the primaries. Especially once April comes around. 2) The law is such a mess, it's going to make people mad. Again pissing a lot of voters off.

  40. tlw

    That's precisely why the GOP is trying to scuttle it. They spent the past several years making wildly apocalyptic predictions about Obamacare (if those predictions were true, they'd definitely implement it, for the reasons you just stated).

    However, the GOP isn't stupid; they realize that IF Obamacare goes into effect, the voters will soon realize it bears little resemblance to the bleak picture they've been painting all along. I'm not saying that Obamacare doesn't have its drawbacks, it does, but those flaws don't rise to the level of "death panels" & ect. that radical wing of the Republican party likes to harp on about.

    That's why the GOP wants to stop Obamacare, they don't want their constituents to realize that their predictions were exaggeration at their best, and flat lies at their worst. Instead they want brag about saving our grannies from the big bad death panels

  41. Virgil

    Not often I disagree with the major premise of a cartoon on this site but bluntly…..

    YAWWWN…..the government shut down? Why that's only happened 17 times since the 1970's! My understanding is that it was a pretty much annual event during the Reagan administration….and Reagan won two elections far more convincingly than Obama did.

    My position is that Congress and the President are elected by different constituencies…..and it is not uncommon for the population as a whole to majority vote for one outcome and yet, district by district, to support the reverse. The Republican house can say that they won their seats based primarily off of opposition to Obamacare to the same degree Obama can say his re-election was based off of its support. The House re-election is not more important than Obama's re-election, but it is of equal importance. So we have a split decision…and where there is a split decision, there is a debate. It will be settled by how well Obamacare works in practice over the next few months. If it works, Republicans will be viewed as unnecessarily alarmist…much as their intellectual ancestors were in the passage of Social Security and Medicare. If it does not…if premiums increase greatly in cost, then the Democrats will take the political penalty and there will be a reaction against a major government program for the first time in American history.

  42. Taylor

    They are elected by different constituencies, but Obamacare is law. Split decision goes to the law on the books. If the GOP wants to change it, they can get elected.