How Ted Cruz, FreedomWorks, and Heritage Action lost the government shutdown

Ryan Ellis President, Center for a Free Economy
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Conservatives are rightly upset about how little was achieved in the recent government shutdown. Proponents promised that if the government was shut down for any length of time, a grassroots army from the heartland would rise up and demand full defunding of Obamacare. Democrats in Washington, squirming at both the pressure from without and the cut off funding from within, would cave, and President Obama would reluctantly gut his namesake legislative achievement. Those who didn’t want to go along with this plan were called RINO-cocktail party-Potomac fever-squishes over what amounted to a tactical disagreement. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and staff even used terms like “surrender caucus” and “Neville Chamberlains.”

Much like the Vietnam War, things didn’t go quite as planned for the self-appointed “best and the brightest.”

According to all the polling done during the shutdown, two trends became abundantly clear: first, the country blamed the Republicans for the shutdown, not the Democrats—so much for pressure on the opposition.  Second, and even worse, Obamacare actually grew in popularity the longer the shutdown went on.  This despite the fact that the shutdown coincided in time with the disastrous rollout of Obamacare’s federal health exchange website.

To review, the precise opposite thing happened from what defund/shutdown proponents said would happen. The country did not rise up against the Democrats, but against the Republicans. The country did not clamor for the end of Obamacare, but rather moved toward it despite its obvious flaws. All this served to unite Democrats — many of whom were previously inclined to talk about addressing Obamacare — behind a no-yield, protect-Obamacare negotiating stance.

The Congressional Republican leadership was then left with the same choice all quagmire losers face — keep bleeding, or find a way to get to peace with honor. The latter was what we ended up with in the deal that opened the government until January 15, 2014 and extended the debt ceiling until at least February 7, 2014. The sequester was thankfully spared.

Objectively speaking, much more could have been extracted. To extend the debt limit for what will likely amount to half a year is a huge concession. It’s a retreat from the “Boehner rule,” which would have demanded spending cuts of the same size as the debt ceiling increase. At the very least, we should have gotten something of note.

At the top of this list is the so-called “Vitter Amendment,” which would have required Congress to live under Obamacare as they wrote it and without any special handouts. Under the law, members of Congress and their staff are required to enroll in Obamacare exchanges without any help from Uncle Sam to pay premiums. Completely ignoring the law, President Obama’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) gutted the first half of this rule by exempting so-called “committee staff,” and made a dead letter of the second by subsidizing 74 percent of premiums with taxpayer dollars.  The Vitter Amendment would have overruled OPM and insisted on the law as written.

To the shock of most of the Obamacare repeal community, two of the main ringleaders of the shutdown-to-defund gambit, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, key voted against including the Vitter Amendment in the final CR/debt ceiling deal. Senator Cruz was previously on record opposing the measure. The stated reason? Because Vitter didn’t exempt everyone from Obamacare, it should be opposed. That is, quite frankly, absurd. By that standard, the Reagan tax cuts should have been opposed because they didn’t result in a flat tax.

Forcing Congress to live under the full brunt of Obamacare would change the dynamics greatly. At the same time that the website doesn’t work and the individual mandate is about to kick in, nervous Congressional staffers and members would have seen their own wallets about to take a massive hit (since they’d have to pay 100% of Obamacare’s costly premiums). Asking for a delay in the individual mandate would have become a very personal matter even for the Democrats on Capitol Hill.

At the very least, the Senate would have had to vote out this provision had the House included it. That would have given us a great vote to use against in-cycle red state Democrats running for re-election.

The Vitter Amendment debacle is a classic case study in how this entire affair was bungled by a few narcissistic conservative groups and senators, who actually did quite well from the shutdown.  They themselves have profited handsomely in emails and donations, as reported in multiple press outlets. But the damage they caused may have inflicted a mortal wound to the cause of Obamacare repeal.