In one “West Wing” episode, a group of fictional Belarussian officials gather to write a new constitution for their country. Intent on following the model of the US constitution, Toby Ziegler, the fictional White House Director of Communications, implores them to do otherwise. His country’s governing system is, he says, a “recipe for constitutional breakdown.”
Today, almost 800,000 federal employees in the US will not show up to work. One million more – those considered essential – will show up but not get paid for the work they do. Constitutional breakdown, namely an inability of the Republican House and Democratic Senate to agree a budget, is now a firm part of the American political lexicon.
Every year, Congress must pass a budget to make sure that the federal government continues to operate at financial year end. Yet, for the nineteenth year in a row, Congress has failed to pass the following year’s budget in time. In seventeen of the nineteen years, short-term bills have kept the government’s doors open while longer-term negotiations continue. But not this year.
The sticking point is an effort by the Republican Party to couple defunding of the Affordable Care Act withpassage of the 2013/14 budget. Health care reform was championed by President Obama. It is despised by many Republicans but is also considered the signature achievement of Obama’s Presidency.
But in holding the country to ransom over this issue, Republicans ignore three realities of American politics and face political ignominy.
The last government shut-down, in 1996, also came when a group of fiery conservatives locked horns with a weakened Democratic President. Republicans lost that fight, and Bill Clinton won an easy re-election.
This year’s gamble has even higher stakes. In sixteen days the country will run out of money, not just to pay for government services but to pay its debts. Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the US will default on its borrowings for the first time in history.
In continuing to fight the battles of 2010, Republicans are trying to roll back the clock. Critically, they ignore that age old advice to pick your battles. The fight over Obamacare is now about emotion, not public policy. It passed Congress three years ago, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012, and the man responsible for its passage was convincingly re-elected less than twelve months ago. Despite all this, Republicans have attempted to repeal the law forty times since its passage.
Many Republicans argue that the US Government is too big and that health care reform will mean more spending. Being mostly regulations, the Affordable Care Act has little to do with the federal budget. That is about paying for those things which Congress has already agreed to fund, not about trying to reverse something that the minority party was unable to prevent from becoming law. Bob Woodward, a journalist with many years of experience in Washington, declared on Sunday that the GOP is trying to blackmail the President.
It is no coincidence that the last nineteen years have been marked by a period of divided government and heightened partisanship. One blog study found that Congress now suffers from the highest levels of partisanship since the late nineteenth century. But the US Constitution is based on compromise. Divided government is built into the system.
The GOP’s second fault is failing to recognise the world they inhabit. They may control the House of Representatives, but Democrats control the Senate and White House. No one gets everything they want in this situation. Both parties have been attempting to blame the other for the lack of compromise, but the GOP has become a one-trick pony. It has a myopic fixation with Obamacare.
Republicans argue that they have sent three continuing resolutions to the Senate which would have prevented a shut-down. Despite Democratic opposition to delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act, all three resolutions contain provisions to do just that. Without them, government offices likely would have stayed open.
In 1996, a Republican Speaker led the charge; now, a sixth of the Republican caucus leads the Speaker. Successful parties need effective leaders as well as ideas. Obamacare might be unpopular, but it is a reality. Instead of adjusting to that reality, John Boehner, the House Speaker, has allowed 40 GOP Congressmen, the Tea Partiers, to ransom the country and dictate Republican positions on budget negotiations.
Ideological posturing might work in the short-term. Senator Ted Cruz is touted as a future GOP Presidential candidate, his standing boosted by a 21 hour speech on the evils of Obamacare. That he was reprimanded by a fellow GOP Senator, Bob Corker, shows that some Republicans know the party is in dangerous territory. With a sixteen day window to prevent default the entire United States is in dangerous territory.
The Economist’s correspondent predicted, before Tuesday’s shut-down, that because a default is unprecedented, “it is probable that both sides will avoid triggering one.” But few things are probable when ideological purity becomes more important than funding a government.