Simon Williamson

Refusing to own your shutdown

2013-10-16 11:03

Simon Williamson

By now, negotiations by top politicians to try and reopen the government have become so convoluted, and have been melded so many times that the process has become somewhat difficult to follow. This, in turn, has led to the "both sides do it"  narrative that is starting to pop up all over the place, but is, in fact, bollocks.
While, of course, there are historical instances of Democrats playing legislative games, this current government shutdown, and the possible beginnings of market jitteriness over a debt ceiling crash, are Republican-owned. Senator Ted Cruz’s successful attempt to woo the most conservative Republicans over to his corner had consequences, most of which were fairly predictable.

Cruz decided he would plunge himself into leading the charge to shut down the government until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was defunded. This prompted an influential group within the House of Representatives Republican majority to march in Cruz’s footsteps from 30 September when funding for the US government ran out.

The House passed a bill that funded the government for a few weeks but ripped out the funding for Obamacare, and send that bill to the Senate, which naturally threw it back with the defunding of Obamacare torn out. Repeat. Repeat.
Because there was no middle ground on what should happen regarding a law passed by Congress, held up by the Supreme Court and surviving an election during which it was massively debated, we’re now sitting with a shut down government and a possible debt ceiling crash in two days.
None of the scrambling by Cruz and House Republicans over the budget actually had anything to do with the budget. The important parts to note here are Democrats’ and the president’s refusal to negotiate over the debt ceiling, and unwillingness to do the same regarding Obamacare.

To the former, knowing what the debt ceiling is makes it an absurd thing over which to quibble. The debt ceiling is an archaic beast that does little other than authorise borrowing to pay for things Congress ALREADY PASSED. It doesn’t cut spending. The only way to cut spending is, literally, to cut spending – the “clean” deal that was supposed to be passed by both chambers of the legislature actually included spending cuts agreed to at the beginning of the year.

That’s now up in the air. Not raising the debt ceiling will smash the global economy – that’s not what one calls “leverage” in any sort of normal negotiation, and is why Democrats have referred to it as hostage-taking. And on Obamacare, there is absolutely no political upside whatsoever for Democrats to delaying key aspects of the president’s signature bill (which, to repeat myself, was passed by Congress, held up by the Supreme Court and survived an election during which it was massively debated).
The House’s next trick was to pass piecemeal bills to fund the government bit-by-bit – to fund Washington DC (which ridiculously needs its budget passed by the House), to fund the National Institute of Health, to pay military veterans, to fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to back pay furloughed government employees, to fund border operations etc.

This comes along with the obvious risk of noticeable agencies being reopened, but forget the ones the media night not notice, thereby throwing away some folks so House Republicans can LOOK like they are fixing the problem they created, instead of actually fixing it. Democratic New York Senator Chuck Schumer blasted Republicans for a, "cynical attempt to pit important programs against each other". The White House also threatened to veto any piecemeal bills.
House Republicans’ next gambit was to entice Democrats into a "bicameral commission" to try and get them to negotiate. This, naturally, failed, as Democrats – quite correctly – refuse to negotiate over the debt ceiling. In fact, President Obama refuses to do anything to set a precedent over which the debt ceiling becomes negotiable, which has really pissed some folks off.

Says National Review: "'The president sent strong signals to us which we find offensive,’ says Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee. 'He' s not a dictator. We have a constitution,’ he adds. 'It's unreasonable and very selfish,' adds Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah about the Democrats' reticence.'"
The problem is, this isn’t working. By 53% to 31% the public blames Republicans more than President Obama for the shutdown. A mere 24% approve of the Republicans (an all time low), and if the election was held today, would vote for a generic Democrat over a generic Republican 47% to 39%. Indeed, Democrats and the president have also seen drops in disapproval, but it is marginal in relation (and in fact Obama’s approval went up by two points).
And aside from the public thinking Republicans are to blame, there are two unintended consequences of Republican actions: the government shutdown does not affect Obamacare in the least (so it launched on 1 October, as planned), and because of the government shutdown everyone is distracted from the disastrous launch of the Obamacare exchanges. Oh, and the law is now more popular by seven points.
Republicans refuse to own the shutdown they caused. And it’s beginning to become clear why. None of this has worked. At all.
Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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