Taking the Country Hostage: The Government Shutdown

I have a visceral, negative reaction to the notion of the United States being “held hostage” by one party or another. Intuitively, it feels wrong for one party in one half of one branch of our government to shut down the whole operation. And at first, it seemed like we could lay the blame at the feet of a single party: the Republicans, and their insistence on repealing Obamacare. While there are many rational reasons to dislike Obamacare (as my last article highlighted), holding endless symbolic votes to repeal it is an exercise in futility. And yet, for a lengthy interval, it seemed as though Republicans were infinitely committed to this single issue, wasting everyone’s time and their own limited political capital in the process.

Sounds about right. What changed?
The conversation changed. As symbolized by Paul Ryan’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, some folks in the GOP started to wake up – they realized there were bigger issues facing the country than repealing Obamacare. As a result, Republicans essentially gave in to all of Obama’s demands – they agreed to fund Obamacare, agreed to an increase in the debt ceiling, agreed to reopen the government through December 15th, and they even agreed to reverse many spending cuts from the sequester.

In exchange, they asked Obama for the following: (1) Forget about the ACA’s unpopular medical device tax (something he admitted last Friday was not central to Obamacare and which 79 members of the Democratic-led Senate have already voted to repeal), and (2) Promise to hold future talks with Republicans about debt reduction, with no binding commitments whatsoever to take action on the issue. Obama said no.

The same week, House Republicans offered to raise the debt ceiling for six weeks with no strings attached. Obama said no.

Of course he said no. That isn’t what he wanted!
True, Obama would like the timeline for both issues (the shutdown and the debt limit) to be longer. As he stated, “It wouldn’t be wise, as some suggest, to just kick the debt ceiling can down the road.” The problem is that, in raising the debt ceiling without tax and entitlement reform, America is simply kicking a different can down the road: the debt itself.

Sure, we will eventually have to deal with the debt. But that’s a long way off.
Hardly. The government’s own Congressional Budget Office states that, if current laws remain in place, “The gap between federal spending and revenues would widen steadily after 2015.” The CBO ultimately calls our current situation “unsustainable.” Is 2015 so far away?

Before, the shutdown was about repealing Obamacare. This focus went against public opinion, had been tried numerous times with no success, and undid many positive effects of the law. Now, although the Republican Party remains divided, the part that is focused on more broad, fundamental, and structural challenges seems to be coming to the fore. And while it may not justify the government shut down, it is a vastly more important issue and an encouraging measure of just how far Republicans have shifted their negotiating position since the shutdown began.

So let’s revisit the situation at present: What is going on here, and who is taking the country hostage? In answering the following questions, we will attempt to find out.

Is it wrong for Republicans to oppose a debt limit increase?
Well, Obama didn’t think so. When asked about the debt limit in 2006, he stated:

The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘the buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.

Many in the GOP likely feel that they couldn’t have put it better themselves. But as he has recently made abundantly clear, Obama has since reversed his position.

It is, of course, foolish and damaging to default on our debt. But perhaps it is just as foolish to insist that we raise the debt ceiling while taking no action to combat the reason we have to keep raising it. Even liberal blogger Ezra Klein has stated that there is “a logic to the position that ‘we won’t let the government borrow more to pay its bills unless it comes up with a plan to spend less in the future.'”

Is it wrong for Republicans to support a government shutdown?
Generally, the consequences  of a shutdown are negative. People are off work, and it is likely a drag on our still-weak economy. Many people are upset, and blame Republicans. Harry Reid echoes this sentiment, stating:

What right do they have to pick and choose which part of government is going to be funded? It’s obvious what’s going on here. You talk about reckless and irresponsible, wow.

Some would argue that picking which part of government gets funding is exactly what Congress is supposed to do. As House.gov explains it, “Congress—and in particular, the House of Representatives—is invested with the ‘power of the purse,’ the ability to tax and spend public money for the national government.” The GOP holds the majority in the House of Representatives, so obviously they have some say in the government’s financial situation. The House has no obligation to pass a bill with “no partisan strings attached,” as Obama has demanded.

The House does have an obligation to work towards a solution. But this obligation cuts both ways. That is how we solved the eight government shutdowns in the Reagan years: the parties negotiated with one another. And in the last week, we have seen a House that is willing to negotiate and a President that is not.

What are the Republicans doing wrong?
The GOP has an obligation to hold a vote on a clean funding bill. This would send a clear message that the current power struggle is about ideas, not procedural tactics. If they do not have the votes, then so be it.

I also have a problem with refusing to fund things that you actually do support in an effort to force the other side to capitulate. This is extortionate, and it is dishonorable. However, I think that it is a mistake to assume that Republicans are the only side guilty of this practice.

Remember that quote from Harry Reid? He said it when asked why he opposed a GOP proposal to restore funding for sick children undergoing clinical trials at the NIH. Reid wants sick kids to get well just as much as anyone else. So why oppose something he actually supports? He is making a political point. Using human lives to make a political point is wrong, on either side of the aisle.

During the shutdown, the federal government is only spending 17% less than it would normally be.  The administration has to cut 17%, and they choose defunding last-chance experimental treatment for kids with cancer?

That’s a terrible story. But surely it’s an isolated example.
Unfortunately, it is just one of many painful and arbitrary cuts Democrats have decided to make. Things like blacking out the Amber Alert website (while leaving Michelle’s “Let’s Move” site up and running), setting up traffic cones to prevent people from pulling over to the side of the road to see Mt. Rushmore, throwing old people out of their private home, sending out patrols to close the ocean, and taking down White House visitor logs showing 155 visits by the IRS official who headed the scandal-ridden tax exempt organizations office (for the record, she now runs the office overseeing Obamacare implementation).

But I forget myself – we were discussing cuts. All of the above actually required the government to spend money and manpower.

As this kind of conduct continues to emerge, it strongly suggests that Obama and the Democrats are not committed to working towards a solution: they are being vindictive. The spirit of the shutdown can be summed up by this statement from a park ranger: “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can.” In a government designed to serve the people, that should never be the case.

What’s the takeaway?
To the (still significant) extent that factions in the GOP continue to obsess over repealing Obamacare, they are in the wrong. This defies popular opinion and is not rationally related to authorizing continuing government borrowing and spending. These Republicans could be justly said to be “holding the country hostage.”

On the other hand, the issue now being put forward – controlling government spending – is very obviously related to authorizing additional government borrowing and spending. Moreover, popular opinion is against the Democrats on this issue: 53% of voters want major spending cuts as part of any debt ceiling deal. To the extent that this is the issue under consideration, Obama has an obligation to acknowledge that the House has a say in funding the government.  Demanding money with “no partisan strings” from your opponents who hold the purse strings no longer makes any sense. It is time for Obama to negotiate.


3 thoughts on “Taking the Country Hostage: The Government Shutdown

  1. In reference to: ” . . . holding endless symbolic votes to repeal it is an exercise in futility.. . :

    Would I be remiss if I did not mention that all these fruitless votes also probably cost the taxpayer a bundle of money? It costs money to get people to and from Congress and to pay everyone concerned their wages – – I have heard that the taxpayer share of all these votes was something like $84,000. This from the party that is always so concerned about “Saving” money for the “Gubmint,” right?

  2. It is highly reckless to use the debt ceiling as a political pawn. Payments on spending and borrowing that congress already approved are due. The Constitution gives our Congress the right to spend and borrow on the full faith and credit that the United States will pay for all of it. Congress can’t just ignore the promises they made, especially to other parties in the name of the United States. Just because there is a stand they need to make, politicians shouldn’t drag the credit United States in political fights. There is nothing in our Constitution that would allow our Congress to break promises they made on the credit of the United States. On new spending however, they have all the power…

    In July, Boehner rejected the Senate’s budget proposal and cut it by $70 billion, maintaining government spending at current sequester levels. Harry Reid agreed to all of it, at some point before they left for their summer break. Then, Sen. Cruz went on his crusade, while all senior Republicans watched him promise the impossible and said nothing. Boehner came back announcing that his own budget deal, to which Sen. Reid had agreed, was dead, because during the summer House Republicans realized that they needed to make a stand. This turn of events was just one more sign that Boehner could hardly promise anything, though he is the Speaker of the House. So even the proposals to Obama were not only an about-face, on the subject of Obamacare, but also impossible to deliver, as he never has enough goodies to please the far right flank of his caucus…How do you negotiate with such a leader? Can he promise anything? And how do you ensure that they change their behavior?

    As for citing past statements made by Obama about the debt ceiling, it is important to note that he and other Democrats never threatened to cause a default, which they could have done easily with filibusters and blocking Senate procedures. They simply took the typical stance of an opposition party. Guess what were Boehner’s statements back then!…

  3. Pingback: Lets Get Ethical | Refusal to Stop the Time Bomb

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