It has been a week since the federal government of the US of A shut down. Why did it shut down? That’s actually not an easy question to answer. It depends on where you begin this story.
You could start it in 1990, when conservative Republicans in the House Of Representatives, lead by Newt Gingrich, lead a nearly successful revolt against a budget compromise between President George H. W. Bush and the leaders of a Democratic Congress. Unless you count January’s “Fiscal Cliff” deal, this was the last time any Republican in Congress voted to raise taxes. When Bush lost, the far-right became much stronger in the Republican Party because of the assumption that the tax increase had killed Bush’s chances of reelection. Personally, I think Bush’s biggest problem was a recession that most, House backbenchers on the floor included, accepted before the tax increase ever happened as all but inevitable. This definitely isn’t how the right-wing universe saw it. This strengthening of the right made frequent brinkmanship possible.
Or you could start in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. This was likely the result of economic collapse. Once again, that’s not how Republicans saw it. Their view was that they had been sold out, citing No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and earmarks. How these pieces of legislation made Bush any more of an apostate than the sainted Ronald Reagan’s tax increases, meeting with Gorbachev, and immigration reform made him, I could not guess, but apparently, they thought so. And so it was that right-wing groups have launched primary challenges for the slightest impurity ever since.
The starting point could begin just a little later. Supposedly, Republican leaders met right after inauguration day and decided on a strategy of total opposition. This made the filibuster the standard rather than the exception that was in the past. Translated to English, that meant that there was a 60-vote requirement to pass anything in the U.S. Senate. When the Republicans got a House majority, they decided to start channeling the Sopranos by extending this to procedural votes, making even the faith and credit of the United States a bargaining chip.
Or perhaps we begin in November 2010. Thanks to an enthusiasm gap, but mostly because of 9.6% unemployment, the Republicans won control of the House. This was taken by them to be not a balancing act but a repeal of the Obama administration. To be fair, hubris in victory is not exactly unheard of. “What would Roosevelt do if he were alive” was parodied as “what would Truman do if he were alive” after the 1946 midterms; Gerry Ford had barely begun to be President when he took a lickin’ at the polls in 1974 and received veto override after veto override; House Speaker Tip O’Neill recalled in his memoirs that he didn’t think Reagan would bother running for reelection after his party lost in 1982; months after the 1994 elections, Bill Clinton actually had to say, “the President is relevant here.” Of course, Obama, like three of these four other presidents, went on to win reelection. What’s different is that Republicans have continued to hold onto the memory of 2010 like a life preserver. This helps them see Obama, nay, all political opposition, as illegitimate.
Or maybe it was when Obama committed the blunder of negotiating over the debt ceiling. By the time it became clear that the Republicans were demanding and not compromising, Obama could not believably argue that American credit was non-negotiable.
Actually, though, the answer is two weeks ago. The Republicans were insisting on a continuing resolution that included the de-funding of the Affordable Care Act. Nonetheless, there were indications that a clean CR would pass until Senator Ted Cruz’ pretend-filibuster, which included references to, among other things, the children’s book Green Eggs and Ham. This was my response:
Hey, if he can waste time with lame Dr. Seuss analogies, so can I! Anyway, Cruz’ antics seem to have instantly changed the math in the House. Now a clean CR didn’t have the votes.
What happened next will sound like a joke. To appease conservatives, Republican leaders released their opening demands that look kind of like the Romney/Ryan campaign platform. Even that wasn’t good enough for backbenchers in the House. As a result, no CR passed, so the government ran out of money and closed.
It’s getting worse, people. House Speaker John Boehner recently warned that if Obama does not negotiate over the debt ceiling, we will default. That would mean an economic tsunami. Before that, Rep. Marlin Stutzman said, “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
What do they have to say for themselves (yeah, I mean it that way)? It seems to be that the only way anything can get done is if American credit is on the chopping block. Because Obama doesn’t see it that way, he is the one with a foot on the brakes of the Washington street sweeper.
First of all, Obama has offered a number of compromises on job creation and/or deficit reduction that include major concessions. You can see the progressive Americans For Democratic Action’s mixed reaction to one of them right here. Second, there is no intransigence in not wanting to flush a year’s worth of legislation, not to mention the losing efforts of T. Roosevelt, Truman, T. Kennedy, and the Clintons, down the drain. Besides, the ACA’s opponents have already had their chances to repeal it in the form of filibusters, court cases, and a election to decide its fate. They lost. Third, “give us what we want or the economy gets it” is no compromise. It’s a stickup. Finally, if you think Obama’s the one being unreasonable, I refer you to three paragraphs ago to a right-wing pipe dream being too leftist for the House. And Boehner’s gonna get his people to agree to an adult idea with OBAMA?!
I sincerely haven’t any clue how this will play out. Some liken this to a action movie in which the bad guy takes a hostage that is close to the hero. Me, though, I think the more appropriate kind of movie is the comedy about bumbling criminals who screw up left and right. You see, Boehner appears to have lost control of his caucus. It’s as if he is only a figurehead. He could join with Democrats to get a CR/debt ceiling increase, but to do so would likely be the end of his Speakership. So he hesitates.
An alternative is Obama giving in. He shouldn’t. In the first place, that would permanently make brinkmanship, not negotiation in good faith, the default style of American governance. For another, the Republican’s demands would only grow the next time. There’s going to come a point when nothing can satisfy. Then default will happen anyway.
I really don’t think there’s a perfect solution to this. Some cite the 14th Amendment because it says “the validity of the public debt… shall not be questioned.” But there are certain legal flaws in this argument, such as that the 14th Amendment also says that it’s for Congress to enforce it. Short of that, there is no silver bullet. Here’s hoping that the economy isn’t nuked in the near future.