By Zach Gorwitz.
At midnight, on Tuesday, Oct. 1st, 2013, the United States government turned into a pumpkin — ineffective, carved, and roughly the same color as John Boehner. This is also when the United States government officially stopped doing what it had unofficially stopped doing long before—governing.
To date, the most recent shutdown was the 3rd longest in U.S. history and the first since 1995. But, this is not the first time we’ve come close to the brink. You could almost watch this one as it happened.
There was plenty of political posturing that occurred before this shutdown. There was the strange, Dr. Suessian semi-filibuster from Texan Senator Ted Cruz, and there were absolutes from Senator Harry Reid and President Obama that the Democrats would make no compromises when it came to funding the government. But in reality, this shutdown showdown was about one thing: Republicans really, REALLY do not like President Obama’s signature health care law and Democrats really, REALLY do (whether these feelings were rooted in policy or politics, the jury is still out). And both sides were willing to shutter the government in order to win the fight over the Affordable Care Act. Republicans espoused the idea that if the ACA would be funded with a continuing resolution (the legislation needed to keep the government running), there would be no continuing resolution at all. The fact that even though the House voted against a CR and the ACA was still being funded was ignored.
Who was wrong in this partisan standoff? The Republicans were, and I don’t think that is a partisan statement to make. ACA legislation passed both chambers of Congress, was signed by the executive, did not have legislative support for repeal, and stood the constitutional test of the Supreme Court. For all the rhetoric about the Republicans holding the country hostage over the ACA, that’s exactly what happened—a vocal faction of the GOP stopped the paychecks of 800,000 federal workers because they don’t like a democratically implemented law.
But this failure of leadership is not entirely on the Republicans. First of all, using “Republicans” as a blanket term is dangerous—there is a sensible wing of the party often not heard because Speaker of the House John Boehner risks losing his job if he brings legislation not supported by a majority of Republicans to the House floor. The Tea Party has made a habit of what President Obama calls, “governing by crisis.” This less sensible, louder wing of the party, led by Rep. Steve King, Rep. Louie Gohmert, Rep. Michele Bachmann, etc., has created major headaches and image problems for the rest.
“One year until next fall’s midterm elections, American voters prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress to a Republican-controlled one by eight percentage points (47 percent to 39 percent).” It seems extremism’s poster boy, Ted Cruz, hasn’t learned a lesson from this mess. ABC News’ Jon Karl asked Cruz if he would rule out another shutdown and Cruz delivered a threat. “I would do anything, and I will continue to do anything I can, to stop the train wreck that is Obamacare.”
But, the Democrats didn’t make it any easier on the GOP. They refused to give any ground in continuing resolution negotiations, and while this is understandable as a negotiating tactic, it is unfeasible as a governing tactic. One of the more moderate GOP demands was a delay in the implementation of certain aspects of Obamacare. However unpalatable to President Obama, this provided an excellent avenue for compromise. The delay may have even given the administration time to smooth out the problems in the ACA’s rollout, which have been conveniently buried in the news by Washington’s dysfunction. In the search for political victory on both sides, the American people lost.
So, the government shut down. What’s the next crisis? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the debt ceiling. The Congressionally imposed limit on how much the Treasury is allowed to borrow was set to be reached on October 17th. And although some doubt that hitting the ceiling is a big deal, it is a more pressing problem that Congress even needed to consider this question yet again.
Budget negotiations over the past few years have been marred by an inability to compromise on both sides of the aisle, simply kicking the conflict a few months back, past the next election season, never truly addressing the cause of the runaway debt. In the summer of 2011, Congress struck a last minute deal to punt the conflict down the line. December 2012 came and once again a grand budget deal was not negotiated. Congress punted: sequestration was simply delayed a few months. Fast forward to October 2013. The debt ceiling was (surprise) yet again being approached and an eleventh hour deal signed. Congress didn’t fix much. The government will reopen until January 15th and the debt ceiling extended until February 7th, supposedly to give Congress time to strike this elusive “grand bargain.” As Yogi Berra would lament, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Congress is not a place for ideological rants and hard-line positions. It is a place for compromise and good governance. There very real compromises that can and should have been made in the years leading up to this shutdown. When it comes to the budget, Congress needs to take a hard look at mandatory, not discretionary, spending. This includes Social Security and Medicare, the “third rail” of politics that no Democrat wants to tamper with. After all, these are the programs driving our debt (64% of federal spending is mandatory), and were not touched by sequestration. In exchange, Republicans need to drop the gimmicks and understand controlling one half of one branch of government doesn’t earn you the democratic right to keep the entire thing from functioning.
I look forward to the day when the government passes a law that actually enacts a useful, thoughtful policy rather than fixing the screw-ups of the year before. But, as Congress looks forward to new rounds of talks about the sequester and a decade-long budget agreement, I look for a regression to the norm. The new politics of Washington have devolved from back room deals to no deals at all, with the occasional last-minute “we’ll deal with it next session” thrown in. Congress may have reopened the doors of the federal government, but this isn’t a fairy-tale ending.