US shutdown: a guide for non-Americans
The American government has begun shutting its non-essential services. Why? And what will it mean?
The Congressional procedural ping-pong, with its “cloture” votes and “continuing resolutions”, sounds complicated, but what happened up on Capitol Hill was actually very simple. A small cabal of hardcore, anti-government “Tea Party” Republicans insisted on using a bill for the funding of the US government – which pays for spending already agreed by both sides – to demand Mr Obama dismantle or delay parts of his health-care reforms, otherwise known as “Obamacare”.
…But that is of no matter to the Tea Party caucus. Their actions have been called “suicide” or “kamikaze” politics, which is strong language but captures the nihilist mindset that underlies their strategy and the sheer depth of the systemic problem now facing American politics. Historians are reaching back to the stalemated Congresses of the 1880s and 1890s, riven by the still-fresh divisions of the Civil War, to find an era of equivalent nastiness and futility.
As one senior member of the Republican Party leadership explained wearily to me, as the government was moving towards shutdown on Monday night, the Tea Party and its supporters are positively rejoicing at this outcome. They have demonstrated “spine and stomach for a fight”, he says, and fired up their fundraising base ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections, where low turnouts mean narrow sectional interest groups can always punch above their weight.
The Tea Party candidates in their gerrymandered Congressional districts stand to lose nothing personally as a result of this stunt – indeed, their margins of victory will almost certainly increase – and are unmoved by warnings from senior Republicans, who fear the damage this episode will cause to the party’s national fortunes in 2016.
The tea party’s revolt against reality
By Michael Gerson
If you can judge people by the quality of their enemies, one quality shared by many opponents of the tea party is their conservatism. Like many ideological factions, tea-party activists display a special intensity in fighting the “near enemy” — other elements on the right that don’t share their tactics. President Obama may be their ultimate foe, but conservative pragmatists are their rivals. And rivals are the more immediate problem.
So the Senate Conservatives Fund runs ads against Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and other solid Senate conservatives for opposing a counterproductive strategy to defund Obamacare. The circle of tea-party purity is drawn so tightly that it excludes Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) — some of the most reliably conservative members of Congress.
Ideological conflict between Republican factions is, of course, nothing new. The modern conservative movement arose in opposition to Eisenhower Republicanism, which it regarded as ideologically compromised. Ronald Reagan challenged and defeated Rockefeller Republicanism — and seldom has a political defeat been more complete. But Reagan still viewed the Republican Party as a coalition, not as a faction. He campaigned vigorously for Republican moderates such as Sens. Chuck Percy, Robert Packwood and Mark Hatfield (who was the congressional chair for his first inauguration).
During the Obama era, Republican ideological conflicts have intensified. The latest round began with a typical, largely healthy revolt against leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who were viewed as tired and uncreative (though easier to criticize than replace). The young guns — including Reps. Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor — would finally take on Medicare reform and push big questions about the role of government in American life. This involved political risk but had the virtue of intellectual seriousness.
Tea-party populism, however, moved quickly beyond this point. We are no longer seeing a revolt against the Republican leadership, or even against the Republican “establishment”; this revolt is against anyone who accepts the constraints of political reality. Conservatives are excommunicated not for holding the wrong convictions but for rational calculations in service of those convictions.
What explains this development? Some of this is a reaction to the unique provocation of Obamacare. Tea-party activists assert that the launch of health insurance subsidies and exchanges will cause immediate and pervasive entitlement addiction — creating a permanent new class of Democratic-voting clients of the state. It seems more likely that Americans will see the flaws of a hastily and poorly designed system and express their displeasure in midterm elections. But the notion that the character of the country is about to suddenly change helps explain the state of emergency in tea-party circles.
This is reinforced by the development of an alternative establishment — including talk-radio personalities, a few vocal congressional leaders and organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action — that creates a self-reinforcing impression of its power to reshape politics (while lacking much real connection to the views of the broader electorate).
And these ideas do have some resonance among conservative activists who are convinced that Republicans lost recent presidential elections because their candidates lacked combativeness. At least, the argument goes, Ted Cruz has some backbone. It is the political expression of pent-up anger. “If we’re going to fight,” says Michele Bachmann, “we need to fight now.” Few believe any longer that Republicans will be able to defund Obamacare in this session of Congress; it is the fight that counts. This is a word that crops up frequently in tea-party discourse. Not winning. Not strategy. Not consequences. The fight.
Under normal circumstances, this faction — composing less than 20 percent of the House Republican caucus — might exercise a marginal influence. But we have the peculiar situation of a divided Congress and a weak president. The tea-party faction holds the margin of victory in a slim Republican House majority. Boehner has kept some semblance of order by appeasing it — an approach of diminishing utility. And now, in a series of budget showdowns, the interests of tea-party activists have suddenly aligned with those of Obama (who needs a dramatic reshuffling of the political deck). Both sides prefer a powerless, discredited Republican leadership.
The problem for Republicans (as Democrats found in the 1970s and ’80s) is that factions are seldom deterred by defeat. Every loss is taken as proof of insufficient purity. Conservatives now face the ideological temptation: inviting an unpleasant political reality by refusing to inhabit political reality.
Some tea party congressmen find signs of political backlash at home
“It’s a new dynamic, and we don’t know how far it’s going to go,” said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman who is close to the House leadership. “All the energy in the Republican Party the last few years has come from the tea party. The notion that there might be some energy from the radical center, the people whose positions in the conservative mainstream are more center-right but who are just furious about the dysfunctionality of government — that’s different.”
Our Democracy Is at Stake
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: October 1
This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.
What we’re seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point — creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules — namely majority rule and the fact that if you don’t like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head — then our democracy is imperiled.
This danger was neatly captured by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, when he wrote on Tuesday about the 11th-hour debate in Congress to avert the shutdown. Noting a shameful statement by Speaker John Boehner, Milbank wrote: “Democrats howled about ‘extortion’ and ‘hostage taking,’ which Boehner seemed to confirm when he came to the floor and offered: ‘All the Senate has to do is say ‘yes,’ and the government is funded tomorrow.’ It was the legislative equivalent of saying, ‘Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.’ ”
“Give me the money and nobody gets hurt.” How did we get here? First, by taking gerrymandering to a new level. The political analyst Charlie Cook, writing in The National Journal on March 16, noted that the 2010 election gave Republican state legislatures around the country unprecedented power to redraw political boundaries, which they used to create even more “safe, lily-white” Republican strongholds that are, in effect, an “alternative universe” to the country’s diverse reality.
“Between 2000 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white share of the population fell from 69 percent to 64 percent,” wrote Cook. “But after the post-census redistricting and the 2012 elections, the non-Hispanic white share of the average Republican House district jumped from 73 percent to 75 percent, and the average Democratic House district declined from 52 percent white to 51 percent white. In other words, while the country continues to grow more racially diverse, the average Republican district continues to get even whiter.”
According to Cook, the number of strongly Democratic districts decreased from 144 before redistricting to 136 afterward. The number of strongly Republican districts increased from 175 to 183. “When one party starts out with 47 more very strong districts than the other,” said Cook, “the numbers suggest that the fix is in for any election featuring a fairly neutral environment. Republicans would need to mess up pretty badly to lose their House majority in the near future.” In other words, there is little risk of political punishment for the Tea Party members now holding the country hostage.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s inane Citizens United decision allowed a single donor, Sheldon Adelson, to create his own alternative universe. He was able to contribute so much money to support Newt Gingrich’s candidacy that Gingrich was able to stay in the Republican presidential primary race longer than he would have under sane campaign finance rules. As a result, Gingrich was able to pull the G.O.P.’s leading candidate, Mitt Romney, farther to the right longer, making it harder for him to garner centrist votes. Last month, for the first time ever in Colorado, two state senators who voted for universal background checks on gun purchases lost their seats in a recall election engineered by gun extremists and reportedly financed with some $400,000 from the National Rifle Association. You’re elected, you vote your conscience on a narrow issue, but now determined opponents don’t have to wait for the next election. With enough money, they can get rid of you in weeks.
Finally, the rise of a separate G.O.P. (and a liberal) media universe — from talk-radio hosts, to Web sites to Fox News — has created another gravity-free zone, where there is no punishment for extreme behavior, but there’s 1,000 lashes on Twitter if you deviate from the hard-line and great coverage to those who are most extreme. When politicians only operate inside these bubbles, they lose the habit of persuasion and opt only for coercion. After all, they must be right. Rush Limbaugh told them so.
These “legal” structural changes in money, media and redistricting are not going away. They are superempowering small political movements to act in extreme ways without consequences and thereby stymie majority rule. If democracy means anything, it means that, if you are outvoted, you accept the results and prepare for the next election. Republicans are refusing to do that. It shows contempt for the democratic process.
President Obama is not defending health care. He’s defending the health of our democracy. Every American who cherishes that should stand with him.
Cruz did lead the 21-hour faux filibuster opposing Obamacare. And, sure, Obamacare is central to the moment, but it’s not necessarily the driving force behind the shutdown, appearances to the contrary. File this thought for a few paragraphs: The shutdown is leverage for the coming debt-ceiling fight, the purpose of which is not necessarily to delay Obamacare but to achieve other reforms — tax and entitlement — that are the defining purposes of the Republican Party.
…Since Boehner became speaker in 2011, these lawmakers, most of them elected in 2010, have challenged his leadership and questioned his conservatism. They have defied him on one big vote after another, often throwing the House and sometimes the country into disarray.
Boehner’s unyielding position on the six-week government funding bill, which the Senate passed, is a testament to the power of that conservative bloc and a concession to its members. The insurgents are now his palace guards.
The speaker’s closest allies say he cannot afford to defy those on his right flank by ending the shutdown with largely Democratic votes.
Doing so would undermine his position among his members going into negotiations with the White House and Democrats over raising the federal debt limit, which Boehner and his leadership team regard as more critical than the impasse on government funding. Coming up empty-handed for conservatives on both would have broader ramifications.
Republicans who support the speaker argue that if he is going to antagonize the conservatives in his caucus, it would make more sense to do so on the debt-ceiling debate rather than on the funding of the government.
As painful as the government shutdown may be to some, the Treasury Department’s ability to use special measures to manage the nation’s finances will run out Oct. 17, setting up a potential default on the $16.7 trillion debt that would wreak far more havoc on the global financial markets than the shuttering of federal agencies and national parks.
Within the increasingly right-leaning GOP caucus, Boehner might survive one big vote that relied heavily on Democratic support. But two important votes — on the government funding and the debt ceiling — with mostly Democratic backing would leave the already embattled speaker on political life support.
Mitch McConnell’s vanishing act
By Dana Milbank, Published: October 4
There is much blame to go around in this government shutdown, but if one person deserves more culpability than all others, that person is Matt Bevin.
Bevin isn’t a member of Congress or an administration official. He lives in Louisville and runs a family business that makes bells. But he has played a pivotal role in the shutdown by sidelining Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and the man best positioned to negotiate a solution to a political crisis that threatens to upend the U.S. economy.
McConnell is as conservative as they come and a bitter foe of President Obama, famously declaring that his top goal was to make Obama a one-term president. The Kentuckian gives over-the-top daily speeches on the Senate floor denouncing the president and Democrats in the harshest terms.
At the same time, McConnell has brokered compromises in the past when the country faced economic calamity. He struck a deal with Vice President Biden in the early hours of 2013 to save the nation from going over the so-called fiscal cliff. A year and a half earlier, the same duo negotiated a compromise to avoid a default on the national debt.
This time around, McConnell is unable to cut a deal. And that’s because of Bevin, who has launched a tea-party-backed challenge of McConnell in the Kentucky Republican primary.
Bevin has the backing of conservative groups such as the Madison Project, which propelled Ted Cruz to victory in the Texas Republican Senate primary. And the Madison Project doesn’t take kindly to deal-making. “Mitch McConnell emblematizes the rudderless leadership, vacuous core, and duplicitous tendencies of the powers that be within the party,” the group wrote in endorsing Bevin. “He isn’t just part of the problem. He is the problem in Washington, D.C. In fact, as we write this endorsement, he is pressuring senators not to join the effort to defund Obamacare.”
Indeed, it appeared for a while that McConnell was prepared to play the dealmaker again. He opposed Cruz’s scheme to fight Obamacare by blocking legislation to fund the government. Hours before the shutdown began at midnight Tuesday, McConnell floated a plan to keep the government running for another week.
Bevin howled. “Where was Mitch McConnell while Ted Cruz was standing and fighting? Well, he was sleeping. Literally,” Bevin wrote on the conservative Web site RedState.com. “And when he wasn’t sleeping, he was whipping his fellow Republicans to vote against Sen. Cruz’s effort.”
Bevin’s conservative patrons joined the assault. The Madison Project complained about McConnell’s “habit of parachuting in.” The Senate Conservatives Fund charged that McConnell had “surrendered to Barack Obama, Harry Reid and the Democrats.”
McConnell abandoned his deal-making. After a meeting with Obama at the White House on Wednesday, he went on CNBC and declared the session “unproductive,” the Democrats “unreasonable” and the president’s position “unacceptable.” By Thursday, he was serving as a mouthpiece for Cruz on the Senate floor, taking ownership of the strategy Cruz had devised and defending Cruz when the Texas freshman was criticized by Reid, the majority leader.
McConnell is the most visible manifestation of the problem, and his dilemma is key to understanding why this shutdown wasn’t averted and why there is little movement to end it. There are relatively few die-hard conservative ideologues in Congress. But the rest of the Republicans are terrified of being knocked out in a primary by a true believer. So they are acting like tea party conservatives. Were there a secret ballot, Republicans would vote overwhelmingly to keep the government open rather than seek to force Obama to surrender the main achievement of his presidency — something no president would do. But there is no secret ballot, and McConnell, like House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), must choose between the good of the country and keeping his job. So far, they both have chosen the latter.
The terror of the tea party isn’t necessarily rational. Polls show McConnell trouncing Bevin. And yet, he panics. McConnell spent years as the chairman or ranking Republican on the appropriations subcommittee that funneled billions of dollars in aid to Egypt. But this year he was one of only 12 senators to join tea-party darling Rand Paul, also from Kentucky, in voting to eliminate aid to Egypt. A longtime hawk, McConnell also sided with Paul and Cruz in opposing military action in Syria — after Bevin and Kentucky tea party groups applied pressure.
Now the stakes are much higher: closure of the federal government and a default on the national debt. And the man who could rescue us from all this is being marginalized by a small businessman with a big mouth.
Shutdown crisis ignores the real problems
By Robert J. Samuelson, Published: October 1
If you scan the Web sites of various tea party groups and their allies, you will find plenty of references to “less government,” “lower taxes,” “fiscal responsibility” and “more freedom.” What you’ll find much less of are the programs that have brought — and will continue to bring — bigger government, higher taxes and less fiscal responsibility. These are Social Security and Medicare, the major programs supporting retirees. In 1990, they represented 28 percent of federal spending; last year, this was 37 percent; and by the projections of the Congressional Budget Office, it will be 43 percent in 2023.
You can ascribe the mismatch between tea party rhetoric and the budgetary realities to pragmatism. Even tea party groups know that Social Security and Medicare are wildly popular. To attack them head on would be a political death wish. There is more than a little hypocrisy in the self-righteous assault on the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), which — compared to Social Security and Medicare — is a sideshow in shaping the government’s future size and role.
That the fixation with Obamacare has now led to a government “shutdown” is bad policy and politics. For all its flaws, Obamacare was duly passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court and (indirectly) affirmed by the 2012 election. Government cannot function if determined minorities threaten to stop many of its operations every time they lose a major vote. Americans dislike disorder; they will (rightly) blame congressional Republicans for the shutdown’s disruptions and any economic ill effects.
And, paradoxically, Obamacare’s public image might actually benefit. Without a shutdown, Obamacare’s critics could blame its start-up problems on the program’s inherent flaws. Now, its defenders will claim that the program is being sabotaged by Republicans.
Unless it lasts for many weeks, the shutdown should have only a modest economic impact. Many “essential” services continue, as do most benefit programs, including Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare. These programs involve “mandatory spending” and are “authorized either for multi-year periods or permanently,” notes the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The shutdown applies only to programs whose funds must be appropriated annually by Congress.
By contrast, failure to raise the federal debt ceiling — now $16.699 trillion — could be much more damaging because the government couldn’t borrow the money it needs to sustain all its operations. If the safety of Treasury debt (bonds and the like) were put in doubt, interest rates might rise. “Consumer, business and investor confidence would be hit hard, putting stock, bond and other financial markets into turmoil,” economist Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics recently told the congressional Joint Economic Committee. The Treasury says it may need more borrowing authority by Oct. 17.
That’s why any shutdown negotiations should also include an increase in the debt ceiling. But whether the White House will engage is unclear. President Obama has repeatedly said he won’t negotiate the debt ceiling: Congress should raise it as a matter of course, he says. This sounds responsible, but it ducks the real budget issue, which is coping with the steady rise in spending on the elderly.
Here, Obama is as guilty as his tea party and Republican foes of evading a true debate. He hasn’t confronted the reality that Social Security and Medicare are slowly squeezing most other government programs and putting upward pressure on both taxes and deficits. The central budget problem is to reconcile what’s politically popular today with what’s good for the country tomorrow. Obama’s failure to frame the debate in these terms has left a political vacuum — into which has poured much frustration, hypocrisy and destructiveness.
Of all of Sunday’s great television shows — “Breaking Bad,” “Homeland” and “Masters of Sex” — the very best was the one mounted by Ted Cruz. It was nominally called “Meet the Press,” but the only press met was the clearly critical and somewhat overmatched David Gregory. The junior senator from Texas gave the day’s most dazzling performance. As a demagogue, he gets an Emmy.
…My grandfather might read the “Meet the Press” transcript with satisfaction. Cruz used all the right terms: “The ruling class.” “All of the voices of Washington.” “The Washington establishment.” “Career politicians in Washington.” To the naive, he sounds like a leftie. He combines the language of the left with the programs of the right. It’s a powerful combination.
…In 1984 when Gary Hart ran for president, I accompanied him on a commercial flight to New Hampshire. On the plane, I asked him about his organization. He turned around and pointed to a television crew some rows back. “That’s my organization,” he said. Within days, the telegenic Hart was all over the airwaves — and formal organization or not, beat the former vice president, Walter Mondale, by a shocking 10 points in the state’s primary.
[Gary] Hart’s insight is now commonplace. But it’s hard to think of another politician who has so mastered the art of attracting media attention as has Cruz. His 21-hour pseudo-filibuster was a narcissistic tour de force — as was, for that matter, his “Meet the Press” appearance. He came out of nowhere to take a Senate seat, but he remains a mere backbencher, widely disliked by his colleagues who, like those in a Senate of old, know a lean-and-hungry look when they see it. “Such men are dangerous,” Caesar told Antony.
America’s Biggest Newspapers Slam The GOP Over Shutdown