Day 4 of the Federal Shutdown — and the sky has not fallen, the earth has not stopped spinning. In fact, it is a beautiful sunny day here in Washington DC, traffic is light, and except for the odd crazy person trying to crash through the White House traffic barriers, all seems terribly normal, even pleasant…
This is awful news. Why? Because if shutting the government down produces nothing bad then the Republican hardliners will press even further, perhaps even into freezing the US debt limit. That would be truly awful, everyone says. Yes, but didn’t the same people say a government shutdown would be awful, and look — almost no problems! So maybe, think the Republicans, they can go all the way and hold out on the ultimate lever of government power, its ability to borrow money.
What is really going on here? It is simple. Two years ago, when the House, Senate, and President were Democratic, they passed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The law used the government’s taxing power and regulatory power to create incentives for ALL Americans to have health care insurance. Republicans hate that law. Why? Hard to say. Some because they don’t like the government to do anything (so shutting down the government is a good thing!) Some because they don’t like the government telling people what to do (unless it is what THEY want, namely buy more aircraft and missiles and work for less money, lowering the minimum wage). Some because they fear it will be a great victory for President Obama if it goes into effect and works as planned. Whatever the reason, a majority of Republicans — about 30% of the membership of House of Representatives — wants to kill Obamacare if its the last thing that they, or anyone, will do. So they are willing to shut down the government until they get their way, that being some delay or gutting of the key provisions of the Obamacare law.
Now, there is NOTHING in the US Constitution that envisages a minority of the members of one house of Congress shutting the government down and holding it hostage over one law that they intensely dislike. Indeed, the US Constitution does not even mention parties, so it would make no sense to the founders to say the House cannot vote on a law unless it has the support of the majority of the largest party. But that is what is happening. In fact, a bill to fund and open the government would easily pass the House if it were brought to a vote, as all Democrats and many Republicans would vote for it.. But the majority of the Republicans in the House control the House leadership, and they will not let that leadership bring a clean government funding bill to the House for a vote.
Now to me, the biggest laugh comes from hearing the Republicans complain about the President being unwilling to negotiate, while they are willing to compromise. How does that work? Obamacare is the President’s baby, and it is a wholly legitimate baby, brought into the world by both Houses of Congress and blessed by the Supreme Court. Here is the Republican’s idea of compromise: “President Obama, give us your baby, let us kill it, and you can have the government back open.” “Is that too much? OK, we will only slice the legs off your baby — won’t you accept that?” “No, still too much? Okay… How about we just cut off both hands?” “No – one hand?” “How about bamboo shoots under the fingernails until it screams and goes mad?” “Now why won’t you make a deal — don’t you see how far we have come and how far we are willing to compromise?”
So the President has said he will make no deal that trades the death, mutilation or dysfunction of Obamacare for the ability of the US government to operate. Rightfully so — you do not negotiate on the Constitution. And the Constitution is very clear on how you change a law you do not like: you get support of a majority of both Houses of Congress and the President to make the change, or enough votes in both Houses to override a Presidential veto. That is how the US Constitution operates — and having a determined minority try to get around those Constitutional procedures by holding the entire government’s funding hostage until the majorities give in on one law is completely un-Constitutional.
Yet the Republicans who are doing this do not see it that way – at all. Completely the reverse. In their view Obamacare is an act of tyranny imposed by a possibly foreign-born, closet-Muslim President who fooled people to get into office and now is trying to destroy American freedom. The Republicans doing this see themselves as the TRUE patriots, the heroes, the real defenders of American Freedom, and they will not compromise.
So we could be stuck here for a long time. If this was a disagreement over spending, a matter of dollars and cents, they could split the difference. If this was a problem over procedures, or a debate on which counting the votes would determine the outcome, we could do that. But it is none of these. It is a pure ideological confrontation, where the President feels that he has the Constitution on his side and is defending the most important law of his lifetime, and the most important thing he can do for the American people, while the Republicans believe the President is trying to destroy their country and that they must do anything, even risk the very country they are trying to save, to stop him.
These positions do not have any room for compromise, doubt, or bargaining. So we could be here a very long time indeed.