Crisis in Congress

by Jason Rothauser

United States Congress

This is what a government in crisis looks like. Last month, on October 1, the federal government entered its first shutdown since 1996, when an impasse between President Clinton and congressional Republicans led to the government’s doors being shuttered for almost two weeks. Our most recent shutdown beat that record, coming to an agonizing close minutes before midnight on October 16.

The term shutdown is slightly misleading, as most of the government’s most visible functions continued unabated throughout the crisis. Any service deemed essential—the military, for example, or, ironically, congress itself—continued to function. But every day brought more stories of gaps left by our more peripheral federal services. The federal park system was closed, veterans were turned away from national memorials (with much media attention), and the FDA’s routine food inspection was suspended. More than 800,000 federal workers were placed on furlough, without pay and forbidden to work.

How did we get here?

The inability of the Congress to agree on a budget is not new. For years, budget negotiations have collapsed, and the government has largely been funded by “continuing resolutions.” These temporary budget measures extend existing funding levels, kicking the can down the road for year or so without renegotiating terms. This time, however, no temporary solution was forthcoming.

What was different was the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare. Largely similar to the conservative, market-based healthcare reforms enacted by Republican Governor, Mitt Romney, in Massachusetts. Obamacare has become the white whale of congressional Republicans. Since its passage in 2011, House Republicans have voted to repeal the act forty-six times. The 2012 presidential election largely focused on the new health care law, and candidate Romney pledged to begin to repeal the law on his first day in office.

After Obama’s victory, the Republican Party’s establishment leaders were ready to move on. Asked about his efforts to repeal the law after the election, Speaker of the House John Boehner replied, “Well, I think the election changes that. It’s pretty clear that the president was reelected; Obamacare is the law of the land.” But if the party leadership was ready to pick its battles, the Tea Party wing was far from ready to give up.

Conservative activists were determined not to let the fight end there. Powerful lobbyists like Jim DeMint at the Heritage Foundation and other influential donors were among the vanguard of outside groups with a surplus of resources dedicated to helping to kill the law. Budget negotiations and debt ceiling votes had been used previously to extract concessions, so an obvious tactic became clear: tie funding of Obamacare to the funding of the entire government. If the Democrats wanted any budget, it would have to come at the expense of the president’s health care law.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz and others on the GOP’s far right flank took up this banner and pushed the confrontation to the breaking point. Some prominent Republicans spoke out against the tactic. Republican Senator Richard Burr said “I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of.” John McCain and Representative Peter King made it clear that they thought the tactic was wrong-headed and destined for defeat. In the end, however, the entire GOP conference held fast and voted for a shutdown.

President Obama has been quite willing to negotiate under adverse pressure. The Republicans’ refusal to increase the federal borrowing limit (the so-called debt ceiling, a historical anomaly whereby Congress has to separately approve the borrowing of funds to pay for bills it has already passed) led to Obama negotiating for a bargain that would balance cuts in government spending with greater revenue from taxes. That negotiation collapsed and led to the current budget sequester, a series of across-the-board spending cuts that were designed to be terrible enough to force the parties to negotiate in the first place.

The president has been willing to compromise, but not over his signature domestic legislative achievement, and certainly not under threat. As he put it: “If you’re in negotiations around buying somebody’s house, you don’t get to say, well, let’s talk about the price I’m going to pay, and if you don’t give the price then I’m going to burn down your house.” So, realizing that concessions would lead to similar ransom demands for the rest of this president’s administration, Obama and the Democrats held firm. As it became increasingly clear that the president would not fold, discussion of defunding Obamacare faded, and Republicans were largely left to try to save face. Republican Congressman Marlin Stutzman put it perfectly, with a statement that sums up the playground logic of the whole affair: “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

A deal was reached to raise the federal debt ceiling on the eve of the deadline, October 16. The can has been kicked down the road once again. The federal government is open for business, but is only funded through January 15. The next debt ceiling vote has been pushed back to mid-February. The Republicans have had their political noses bloodied by their loss, but nothing fundamental has changed. Gerrymandering of congressional districts has created an unprecedented amount of highly concentrated Republican voting districts (Democratic districts are concentrated due to the same factors, but not to the same extent). The pressure on most GOP members is to avoid seeming not to be conservative and combative enough, lest they face an even more conservative primary challenger.

There is no shortage of GOP legislators who find governing in this way to be not just a losing strategy, but dangerous and irresponsible. But we will continue down this path as long as the party contains a core faction that is willing, even anxious, to precipitate this kind of crisis. There was a time when the conservatism of the Republican Party represented sober, pragmatic thinking, particularly with regard to the nation’s economy. The fact that today’s Republican Party was willing to take the nation so close to the edge of catastrophe shows just how much things have changed.