The Shutdown

Yesterday, I wrote about the broad historical trends in Congress that led up to this shutdown. In a nutshell, the two parties are much farther apart ideologically than they used to be, and House Republicans are particularly extreme:



That tells you why a crisis is likely, but it doesn’t tell you what actually happened to lead to this particular crisis.

In March, both the House and the Senate passed a budget for Fiscal Year 2014, running from Oct 1, 2013 – Sept 30, 2014. Then, nothing happened. In order to avoid this mess, at some point in the 5 months between March and October the House and Senate would have needed to have a conference committee and negotiate on budget legislation. So why didn’t they? Well, Republicans insisted on having a ‘framework’ in place before going to conference. It’s unclear what exactly was in the framework, other than a guarantee of no new taxes. What is very clear is that it was an intentional decision by Republicans not to negotiate over the summer, but instead to wait until they had the ‘leverage’ they could get from the debt ceiling and the Oct. 1 budget deadline. From the Washington Post last May:

Republicans face a listless summer, with little appetite for compromise but no leverage to shape an agreement. Without that leverage, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday, there is no point in opening formal budget negotiations between the House and the Senate, because Democrats have no reason to consider the kind of far-reaching changes to Medicare and the U.S. tax code that Republicans see as fundamental building blocks of a deal.

“The debt limit is the backstop,” Ryan said before taking the stage at a debt summit organized by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation in Washington.

At the time, the debt limit was expected to hit before the Oct. 1 budgeting deadline, but fortunately the deficit declined more than expected, and so the debt ceiling will not be reached until later this month. That means the first leverage point for the House was the potential (and now actual) government shutdown.

Ironically, the two parties agree on a continuing resolution that continues the current spending level. One might have expected there to be a disagreement, with Democrats asking for pre-sequestration funding levels, and Republicans insisting on the same levels. Instead, the disagreement focuses on defunding or delaying Obamacare. A continuing resolution that simply funds the government at its current levels has the votes to pass in both the House (Republican controlled) and the Senate (Democrat controlled, although not filibuster proof). House leadership, driven by the more conservative wing of the Republican party, instead has attached various iterations of defundings or delays of Obamacare to the continuing resolution. The Senate has then stripped out any language on defunding or delaying and sent back a ‘clean’ continuing resolution.

This is different from the normal course of a negotiation. Usually, both sides have something the other wants. But in this case, both sides agree that a government shutdown should be avoided and that the debt ceiling should be raised. So what are Republicans offering Democrats in exchange for defunding or delaying Obamacare? Nothing. It’s hard to see how one can have meaningful negotiation in these circumstances.

It’s unclear to me why the supposedly neutral press gets to be against government shutdowns. If Obamacare is worse than a government shutdown, then Republicans are correct to shut down the government. The problem is the press wants to stay positioned between Democrats and Republicans, and because a government shut down is a bad thing, they must split the blame equally between the two parties. But writing that this shutdown is anything other than Republicans trying to seize a leverage point in order to enact their policy preferences on Obamacare is simply inaccurate reporting.

As Ezra Klein writes:

This is all about stopping a law that increases taxes on rich people and reduces subsidies to private insurers in Medicare in order to help low-income Americans buy health insurance. That’s it.






One thought on “The Shutdown

  1. Pingback: Want the shutdown to end? Blame a party, either party. Just not both. | Faith and Public Policy

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