In the midst of the last decade’s housing crisis, Warren Buffett famously likened financial institutions that engaged in irresponsible lending practices to swimmers who were caught naked when the tide went out. This same analogy can handily be employed today with regard to Congress. Months of irresponsible legislative practices and grandstanding on the part of both parties have led Republicans and Democrats to a standoff. If a deal to end the federal government shutdown doesn’t materialize by October 17th, the debt limit deadline will have a catastrophic impact on the economy and the scene in Washington will be akin to low tide in the Bay of Fundy.
As the shutdown enters its second week, each side continues to accuse their opponent of being unwilling to negotiate. President Obama, in an act of extraordinary hubris, has refused to sit down with Republicans to discuss raising the debt ceiling until the government has re-opened. Needless to say, any Republican worth their salt realizes that simply conceding to this demand without any “ask” on their part is asking to be rolled over. Instead of merely calling the President’s bluff and asking for reasonable compromise on spending, however, Republicans issued the one demand to which Democrats are least likely to agree: that the president delay Obamacare.
We’ve arrived at this impasse because the GOP has allowed itself to be taken hostage by the far right – specifically, by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz (an otherwise intelligent man) has no endgame, and his GOP colleagues are starting to realize it. Instead of putting forth any sort of viable strategy, however, his response has been to attack members of his own party for being “defeatist.” At present, Republicans do not have any path out of this situation that will leave them unscathed, but the far right continues to prevent GOP leadership from working with Democrats to find a solution. Cruz and his allies are staking their careers – and those of their colleagues – on what amounts to a kamikaze mission that, if successful, will only result in economic disaster. So much for the Senate being the saucer that cools the legislative tea.
If the GOP wishes to emerge from this morass with a modicum of dignity, leadership will need to stop kowtowing to Cruz’s demands and start playing a longer game. There is much to be said for engaging in a principled fight, but Cruz hasn’t bothered to articulate a realistic strategy.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner is eyeing the sword upon which he will need to throw himself: reversing the GOP’s self-imposed “Hastert rule” (which prevents the speaker from allowing a vote unless the majority of the party supports it) by bypassing conservative Republicans and seeking out Democrats to shore up legislation that would fund the government.
Moderate Republicans – namely, Michael Grimm (R-NY) and Peter King (R-NY) – have proposed a “clean” continuing resolution that would allow the government to reopen without stripping funding from the Affordable Care Act. Although these measures would resolve the shutdown in the short term, the GOP should take the opportunity afforded by the upcoming debt limit vote to force a larger discussion about slowing down spending, in order to avoid future debt ceiling increases. In the past, such votes have proved to be a reliable vehicle for important legislative proposals, and since the consequences of default are so severe, debt limit legislation has always ultimately passed. Republicans should take advantage of this situation in order to raise a flag on spending – not just on Obamacare, but also on entitlements.
Republicans should be mindful of the results for their party after the last protracted government shutdown in 1995-1996: after the government reopened, a plurality of those polled blamed Republicans for the hiatus. Furthermore, then-president Clinton’s approval ratings soared to their highest point since his presidency began, and the shutdown was cited as a key reason for his re-election later in 1996.
As the Washington Examiner reported in August 2013, prior to the shutdown, the GOP’s own polls showed that a majority of likely Republican voters were opposed to closing down the government as a way to defund the Affordable Care Act. That percentage has almost certainly increased in the past week. Ignoring voters doesn’t get you re-elected, and if Republicans lose their majority, they will lose whatever leverage they have left.