Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 4, 2013

The Shutdown

Well, the feds are in shutdown. Feels like 1995. Only different.

1. My sense is that the negative public reaction to the shutdown is going to rebound to the detriment of the Republicans. Via Anderson, I see that Daniel Larison has this piece in The American Conservative predicting plentiful downside for the GOP:

It seems clear that Republicans in Congress will suffer more political damage from a shutdown, because more of them are seen as willing to accept the shutdown in an attempt to achieve a separate legislative goal. Some Republicans in Congress feel compelled to use such tactics because they do not have the power to repeal the ACA outright, and the reason they don’t have that power is that the public hasn’t been willing to trust them with unified control of the government since the debacles of the Bush era. Republicans won’t be returned to power as long as most Americans have the nagging sense that they will wreck things again once they have control, and this latest display does nothing to make that feeling go away.

Sounds right to me, but time will tell, I suppose.

2. In an attempt at spin and damage control, Congressional Republicans are trying to pass partial funding bills to fund visible and popular parts of the federal government. Here’s the Huffington Post: “Late Tuesday, House Republicans sought swift passage of legislation aimed at reopening small slices of the federal establishment. The bills covered the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Park Service and a portion of the Washington, D.C., government funded with local tax revenue.”

Steve Benen at MSNBC’s Maddow Blog characterizes this approach as government a la carte — funding only the more popular, uncontroversial, photogenic agencies and programs. Says Benen: “Republicans could pass a center-right spending bill and end the shutdown, but what they’d prefer to do is break up the federal spending bill into chunks, and slowly turn the lights on piecemeal. Staffers were referring today to ‘mini-CRs.’ The idea, apparently, is to identify the parts of the Republicans’ shutdown that make the public upset, then pass a spending measure that resolves just that part of the crisis while leaving the rest of the government shut down. Americans are annoyed by closed federal parks? No sweat, Republicans say, they’ll pass a mini-CR that provides funding to reopen the parks — and nothing else. And then when some other part of the shutdown creates public pressure, presumably Republicans would consider flipping the switch on that, too. The goal, apparently, is to shut down the government without feeling the political repercussions of a wildly unpopular government shutdown.”

I think that the Democrats have to stand firm against this tactic, if only to stop the GOP from establishing a precedent that would haunt the republic for years to come. Elections have consequences, and so should votes; every “non-essential” program and agency affected by the shutdown was enacted by at least one duly elected Congressional majority at some previous time; and it should not be the place of Congress to piece-meal fund those programs every time a new CR is due. This may sound pedantic, but if Republicans want to eliminate some particular program, then our Constitution provides a mechanism: get a majority vote in both chambers of Congress. Instead, the House Republicans are holding all programs hostage, and then only releasing the more sympathetic ones. That’s no way to run a government, and it makes a mockery of the legislative process.

As Jordan Weissmann says, “It’s not in the country’s long-term interest to fund government on a line-by-line basis depending on what public-service deficiencies are getting the most headlines.” Indeed.

Fortunately (from a certain point of view), Harry Reid has said that he and the Senate Democrats have no inclination to go along with a la carte funding bills, and President Obama has said that he would veto such partial funding bills.

The GOP tactics this week have me agreeing with Erik Loomis — and that doesn’t feel normal, I can tell you.

All that being said, it appears that the Republican House, the Democratic Senate, and President Obama did agree on one “mini-CR” (or something like it) to make sure that uniformed members of the armed forces continue to receive their pay. (Civilian employees and contractors are not so lucky.)

3. In their new haunts over at the Washington Post, the Mokey Cage has a post by Erik Voeten asking why other countries don’t seem to go through shutdowns like this. (Defaults, like Argentina, yes; shutdowns, no.) Voeten notes, for example, that Belgium went without a government for 589 days back in 2010-11 — no group of parties in their multiparty system could form a stable coalition — and yet the “administrative branch” of government (for want of a better term), that is, the part that deals directly with citizens and gets stuff done, continued to work pretty much as normal.

Voeten muses that details of the American budget practices may play a rather important part:

My guess is that it has to do with institutions, in particular something we call the “reversion value” for annual budgets. In the U.S., if Congress does not pass a budget, then the budget for the next year equals zero. In most countries I know, if the politicians are too polarized to reach agreement, then the budget simply reverts to last year’s budget (or some other reversion value that keeps the government open).

Such a rule obviously affects bargaining over budgets. Usually, different sides in a debate want to change something. When threatening a shutdown is not an option, the incentives to compromise may well increase.

It is tempting to simply blame the current crisis on extreme ideologues from either side. Yet, we must also look at the institutions that allow polarized politics to produce such costly outcomes.

Elsewhere, Dan Drezner thinks that those institutions are broken:

The thing about standard interest-group politics is that bargains could be struck. Any member of Congress or interest group that didn’t like the contours of a deal could be assuaged with a tax loophole here or a public works project there. Now, taken to its extreme, this leads to an incredibly corrupt system of government. At a low level, however, this kind of corruption is the grease that allows governments to do things like pass budgets and honor its debts.

Ideological interest groups are much harder to buy off, however. Their reason for existence is to push their ideas, and most of them will not accept half-measures. This leads to a situation where they benefit more from deadlock than from a bargain. Which is great for the Club for Growth … and lousy for the rest of the country.

At Crooked Timber, John Quiggin has reposted a post from 2010 more or less predicting that Congressional Republicans would pursue some strategy like this: “It seems obvious to me that a shutdown will happen – the Republicans of today are both more extreme and more disciplined than last time they were in a position to shut down the government, and they did it then. And they hate Obama at least as much now as they hated Clinton in 1995…”

And at Duck of Minerva, Amanda Murdie asks, what can game theory tell us about how this political impasse will likely be resolved? (Note: neither side has swerved yet.)

4. At the Washington Post, Ezra Klein talks with Robert Costa (the Washington editor for National Review) about why Boehner “doesn’t just ditch the hard right.” Says Costa: “What we’re seeing is the collapse of institutional Republican power. It’s not so much about Boehner. It’s things like the end of earmarks. They move away from Tom DeLay and they think they’re improving the House, but now they have nothing to offer their members. The outside groups don’t always move votes directly but they create an atmosphere of fear among the members. And so many of these members now live in the conservative world of talk radio and tea party conventions and Fox News invitations. And so the conservative strategy of the moment, no matter how unrealistic it might be, catches fire. The members begin to believe they can achieve things in divided government that most objective observers would believe is impossible. Leaders are dealing with these expectations that wouldn’t exist in a normal environment.”

Byron York does some vote-counting (emphasis added): “There are 233 Republicans in the House. Insiders estimate that three-quarters of them, or about 175 GOP lawmakers, are willing, and perhaps even eager, to vote for a continuing resolution that funds the government without pressing the Republican goal of defunding or delaying Obamacare. On the other side, insiders estimate about 30 House Republicans believe strongly that Obamacare is such a far-reaching and harmful law that the GOP should do everything it can — everything — to stop it or slow it down. … Another 20 to 30 GOP members sympathize with that position but might be willing to compromise, except for the fact that they fear a primary challenge from the Right. … In the continuing resolution fight, it is the 30 most committed members, along with their 20-30 allies in the next-most-committed group, who are setting the House Republican agenda.” Also: “It takes 217 votes to pass a bill in the House. Republicans can pass one all by themselves, but only if they keep 217 out of the total 233 GOP lawmakers on board. If more than 16 GOP lawmakers jump ship, Speaker John Boehner won’t have enough Republican votes to pass any given bill. That’s where Democratic unity comes in. There are 200 Democrats in the House. If they unanimously oppose a bill, then Boehner has to keep almost all of his GOP lawmakers together, or the measure will fail. The combination of those two factors — a close Republican majority and united Democratic opposition — gives those 30 Republicans their power.”

On the other hand, the New York Times is reporting that “Boehner has told colleagues that he is determined to prevent a federal default and is willing to pass a measure through a combination of Republican and Democratic votes, according to one House Republican. The lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of not being named, said Mr. Boehner indicated he would be willing to violate the so-called Hastert rule if necessary to pass a debt limit increase.” (H/T: Lawyers, Guns & Money.)

5. One of the most reported tales from the shutdown in the past few days has been the story of the veterans (and others) who wanted to visit the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. I have to say that I agree with Steve Saideman’s take on this (emphasis added): “Sure, I get it–folks who sacrificed much were inconvenienced by the shutdown, engaged in a bit of civil disobedience and raised a mighty middle finger to the folks at the end of the mall (Congress, not Lincoln). But the fact that this manifestation of the shutdown’s effects will get far more play than lots of others that are are less symbolic and far more consequential is as appalling as it is unsurprising.

In less reported news, about 75% of the staff at the NIH have been furloughed, and as a result “about 200 patients who otherwise would be admitted to the NIH Clinical Center into clinical trials each week will be turned away. This includes about 30 children, most of them cancer patients…” (emphasis added)

Plus, and according to an email, “Due to the lapse in government funding, National Science Foundation websites and business applications, including NSF.gov, FastLane, and Research.gov will be unavailable until further notice. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.” (Duck of Minerva has a useful roundup.)

And Wired is reporting that the shutdown is interrupting and damaging biomedical research.

Also, 97% of NASA has been sent home — although supposedly the department in charge of looking out for asteroids that might be headed for Earth has been deemed “essential” and is still working. (But not their Twitter feed.)

And therapy dogs will not be available for new appointments, according to NPR.

And from Senior District Judge Kopf in Nebraska comes a story about a sentence reduction hearing that was cancelled because, apparently, some people at the federal Bureau of Prisons are non-essential. (If I were a prisoner, and the shutdown resulted in me spending one extra day in prison, I would not be happy with Congress.)

Oh, and coming back to the WWII Memorial, Republican Representative Randy Neugebauer is a jerk who apparently likes to strut and rant at Park Service employees who really are just doing their jobs. What an asshole. Unfortunately, it seems that he has been reelected from his Texas district every two years since 2006 “with no substantive opposition” (i.e., his last competitive race was in 2004, when he only won by 18 points), and it seems all but certain that he will be reelected in 2014.

Oh, and look: Mark Levin is fishing for some attention too.

(I have mixed feelings about the WWII Memorial itself, largely captured in this Charles Krauthammer column from a few years back.)

BTW, has anyone been blocked from the Vietnam Wall? Have there been any sensational cable news segments on that?

6. The Monkey Cage also has a post with tweet word clouds analyzing reactions to the shutdown, broken down on partisan lines.

Wired looks at whether the West Wing story arc dealing with a government shutdown can tell us anything about the present real-world situation.

And, of course, The Onion perfectly captures John Boehner’s predicament: “Help me. Please, God, help me. I’ve lost control and I need help. The far right members of my party are insane. I don’t know what they’re thinking, and I don’t want to know because it would be too horrifying. I’ve tried to explain it to them over and over and they don’t listen to me. They don’t listen to anybody. I say to them, nobody wants a government shutdown, Obamacare is the law of the land, the president was reelected and elections have consequences, and we are only in charge of one branch of government. I say all of that and they just look at me with these cold, dead eyes. Christ, It’s chilling.”

7. Finally, a number of Washington-area restaurants are offering special deals for “non-essential” government workers who have been furloughed. The Washington Post has what looks like a fairly comprehensive guide to help.

Keep calm and carry on.

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