Looming shutdown is stupid, but it’s not bipartisan stupidity

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Speaker John Boehner could decide at any moment to allow a clean continuing resolution to come to a vote and the immediate shutdown crisis would be over.

Sorry. I was traveling and out-of-touch last week while the government shutdown became ever-more likely. With one day until the shutdown deadline and me just back, a few quick-and-dirty observations.

It’s stupid. I’m kinda tired of various metaphors, but for illustrating the stupidity, the “game of chicken” metaphor works pretty well. That’s a game where two teenaged boys drive their cars directly at one another on the beach and the first one who decides he would rather lose the game than participate in a murder-suicide is deemed the loser.

But it’s not bipartisan stupidity. In a game of chicken, any two idiots who have agreed to play the game are equally to blame for the stupidity. Democrats are just driving on the beach. It’s Republicans suffering from Obama (and Obamacare) Derangement Syndrome who have decided to just steer toward the other car.

But even the Republicans in the back seat know better. As James Fallows wrote yesterday, this is not fundamentally an argument between the two parties, it is an argument between two factions of the Republican Party “over whether compromise itself is legitimate.” Plenty of Republicans are saying publicly that it’s crazy, or at least stupid, to keep roaring down the beach toward a collision. But they cannot seem to get control of the brake or the steering wheel.

As the New York Times reported, for example: Rep. Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania, said Sunday that he was actively courting Republicans and Democrats to get behind a temporary spending bill to avert a shutdown, even if it contained none of the additional measures the House passed over the weekend. “I’m prepared to vote for a clean resolution tomorrow,” Dent said. “It’s time to govern. I don’t intend to support a fool’s errand at this point.”

If only a clean continuing resolution (CR), to keep the government open at current spending levels (already restrained by the “sequester”) could come to a vote in both houses, the immediate crisis would be over. The Senate is ready to pass such a resolution — and with plenty of Republican votes. In the House, such a bill would pass with all Democrats plus a substantial minority of Republicans voting for it. So if the votes are there to avoid the collision, what’s the holdup?

‘Hastert Rule’

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It’s the “Hastert Rule,” which isn’t even a rule. The Hastert Rule is that the speaker of the House must use his power to prevent anything from coming to a vote unless it it is supported by a majority of his own party’s members. As I said, this is not a real rule, it’s a rule of thumb that not only can be disregarded at the discretion of the speaker, it has been disregarded several times in recent history by Speaker John Boehner.

Boehner could decide at any moment to allow a clean CR to come to a vote and the immediate shutdown crisis would be over. And I suspect he wants to. It’s possible that as I type these words, he has announced his intention to do so. He knows better. But he has been put on notice that every time he waives the Hastert Rule, the Tea Party wing of his caucus becomes more likely to dump him as speaker and put in a more reliable Hastertian. If you can stand one more use (abuse?) of the “game of chicken” metaphor, Boehner has control of the brake and the steering wheel, but knows that if he uses that control to avoid the collision, his buddies might not let him drive any more.

One more idea

In case you haven’t been obsessing on the scene on the beach, there is one more last-minute idea for avoiding the collision. The House could pass a CR that would be “clean” except for a provision that would make one change in Obamacare affecting only members of Congress and their staffs. It would eliminate the provision of the law that allows the federal government to subsidize the health insurance of members of Congress and their staff. Some Repubs apparently believe that if the Dems won’t do that, the public’s perception of which side is being a bigger jerk will switch. Clever? Possible? I have no idea.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 09/30/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    “Both sides do it” just won’t die

    Keep up the good work, Mr. Black. Very few journalists seem willing to state the obvious: that these repeated crises are largely the doing of a minority of a minority. Most cling to the “both sides do it” evasion, or sidestep the merits of the issues entirely in favor of an obsessive focus on who will benefit politically and who will suffer.

    AOL’s home page this morning asks the burning question: “Who will be blamed if government shuts down?”

    Last Friday night on Washington Week, the discussion of the shutdown issue was consumed with who will “win” and who will “lose” in the short-run and long-run. Almost no discussion of whether this is responsible governance, whether it’s precedented, and the impact on Americans’ lives and the national and world economies. (They talked about both the shutdown and the even more serious debt ceiling crisis ahead).

    This is what we’ve come to….the media treats all these issues as incidents in the permanent campaign. By picking up and repeating talking points without any comment on their substance, journalists give the impression that all points of view and positions have equal merit and the only question that matters is who will benefit politically if one or the other prevails.

    I realize that journalists are supposed to maintain the distinction between fact and opinion, but this gives purveyors of outright nonsense a huge advantage in the marketplace of ideas.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/30/2013 - 05:58 pm.


      Ann, you hit the nail on the head. Just because there are two sides to an issue it doesn’t mean both sides are equal an any sense of the word. It’s like trying to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. One has facts and science to back it up and the other has nothing more substantive than “I think it might be like this.”

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/30/2013 - 12:21 pm.


    The blameless Republicans, in their eyes only, talk about submitting a way out of the debt ceiling mess. They have, but every time they propose something it contains a guaranteed poison pill. Lurching from one disaster to another is not a responsible way to manage a country. I heard, just this morning, a Republican strategist say there is nothing wrong with that method because Italy has operated that way for years. If that is true then they should pick a better role model than Italy to emulate. Many, so called, leaders in a party always lead the chaos the Republicans are experiencing. It is chaos that only they can fix. On second thought the voters can fix it for them in the next election. The Republicans have alienated most segments of the population they need to win. The Republicans will find the next election won’t be their friend, again. They don’t have any answers to fix their party or the country. They are the epitome of the definition of leaderless.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/30/2013 - 01:22 pm.

    Boehner’s toast

    He knows that without the tea party wing of his party, the republicans in congress would be irrelevant. Why even have a republican presence in congress if they’re just going to go along with what the democrats want? You can call it “playing chicken” if you want, but the truth is, the republicans responded with an alternative plan and Boehner never even brought it to the floor.

    The purpose of the opposition party is to provide an opposing plan, which they’ve done, even if you haven’t read about it in the press (google “republican alternative to obamacare”). And what gives the tea partiers their leverage is that they come from the safest republican districts.

    He also knows that regardless what he does, he’ll be out of a job next year when the conservatives elect a new leader with the additional seats they’re going to win.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/30/2013 - 02:45 pm.

      What opposing plan are we talking about?

      The Republican controlled house has voted dozens of times to dump the ACA. In its place they’ve offered standardized tax deductions and dismantle state laws regulating the insurance products sold within their borders. Until this last ditch effort to extort some change, they’ve not offered any bill for modifying the ACA. Even now, it’s simply delay and defund by repealing a tax that’s part of the funding package for the Act.

      Those who want to read what Mr. Tester referred to will find it here:


      You’ll note that this Republican sponsored bill couldn’t make it out of a single committee in the Republican controlled House.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/30/2013 - 05:24 pm.

      …….Why even have a republican presence in congress if they’re just going to go along with what the democrats want?….

      I don’t want to burst your bubble, but civil society works on the basis of compromises and recognizing when you do not have the votes to get your way and moving on from there. That’s the way democracy works–get the votes, and then you get more your way than the other way.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 10/01/2013 - 12:24 am.

        You said it, Mr. Rovick

        “That’s the way democracy works–get the votes, and then you more your way than the other way.”

        I was already an adult when Ronald Reagan was elected, so I can remember a time when Republicans and Democrats both worked for the common good with a lot of give-and-take.

        The Reagan administration came in and started dismantling a lot of the previous consensus, but things really became rancorous after Bill Clinton was elected. I commented at the time, “I think the Republicans are sore losers,” because they attacked every single thing he did, even if it was enacting policies that were Republican ideas originally, such as welfare reform, NAFTA, or financial deregulation.

        During the Bush administration, the Democratic leadership were distressingly willing to go along with the Iraq War and other bad policies, despite a few dissenters.

        But the current Congress is jaw-droppingly childish. Even Karl Rove has told them that Obamacare is the law of the land and cannot be stopped by their method, and yet they have voted 40 times to defund it. They would rather continue with their pointless tantrum than keep the government running. As a Japanese-English translator, I have Facebook friends (all of whom I’ve actually met) around the world, and they are baffled at how any political party could be so stupidly stubborn.

    • Submitted by David Koller on 10/01/2013 - 10:00 am.

      Good One

      “He also knows that regardless what he does, he’ll be out of a job next year when the conservatives elect a new leader with the additional seats they’re going to win.”

      That’s a really good one. Up there with your post from Nov 5 of last year: “Any poll that has Obama leading among men or independents is bogus. Romney will win both categories by double digits.”

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/30/2013 - 01:50 pm.

    What it boils down to

    is that the Republicans in the House are letting the TPers persuade them to reject our constitutional system of government.
    About as unAmerican as you can get.

    And Dennis — the GOP alternatives to affordable health care are to pay for your own health care, which is fine if you’re young, rich and healthy.
    Just don’t have the poor planning to get something like cancer or heart disease (try Googling health care costs for catastrophic diseases in the United States).

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/30/2013 - 03:40 pm.

    If it’s really ….

    about Obamacare a democrat could counter with a proposal for single payer healthcare . Let’s see what the argument then becomes.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/30/2013 - 08:42 pm.

      single payer is the goal and design of Obamacare

      A single payer proposal now would really be stupidity!

      The design is to let Obamacare wither on the vine. In a few years we all will be in a single payer system with no exemptions for the unions, congress, congressional staff, or democratic special interests.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/30/2013 - 04:09 pm.


    I’ve no idea if Mr. Tester’s allegation that Mr. Boehner is toast is correct, but I certainly hope it is.

    With Boehner out as Speaker, we could watch the Republican circular firing squad initiate proceedings against various Republican candidates for the job. With any luck, we’re watching the disintegration of the Republican Party, to be succeeded, one hopes (at least this one hopes) by two parties, one more viable and national than the other.

    One of those parties will be the true heir to the Party of Lincoln, and will be fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and most important of all, populated by men and women who not only have working brains, but actually *use* those working brains to develop policy alternatives to Democratic proposals, alternatives that are not unreasonable from the get-go, that stand a chance of being implemented, and that, a certain partisan bias notwithstanding, are based on verifiable facts. These people will also have consciences and ethical standards beyond those of a 2nd-grader.

    More importantly, their alternative policy proposals will work toward the strengthening of every level of the society. Not just the 1%, not just the religious fundamentalists, not just the white-haired white guys who are astonishingly ignorant of both female anatomy and the crucial role women play in a democratic and capitalist society, and not just those descended from some northern European stock.

    The other, less viable party will be the party of folks who insist, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, that there’s a magical “free market” that will solve most of our problems, that business requires no regulation beyond the good intentions of a few employees, or that, as has been suggested above, that there’s actually a Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act that does *not* amount to “You’re on your own.”

    They will sneeringly refer to the group above as “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only, when in fact, they are the RINOs themselves. Abraham Lincoln would be appalled by many of those who today call themselves “conservative” and/or “Republican,” some of whom are busily trying to implement a return of the very kinds of states’ rights arguments over which 600,000 Americans sacrificed their lives, quite a few of them from Minnesota.

    Kudos to Eric for calling a spade a spade. Both sides of an argument are not always equally fact-based, equally compelling, or equally ethical. Republicans are having the Congressional equivalent of a temper tantrum. A “time out” of perhaps a couple generations, at least, would be well-deserved.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/30/2013 - 08:56 pm.

      Republicans had their last time out

      the last time the government was shut down.
      They don’t learn.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/01/2013 - 07:54 am.

      Party of Nixon?

      I don’t think the Republicans have had a major strategy change since Nixon’s Southern Strategy because they haven’t needed it.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/01/2013 - 08:04 am.

    No Compromise

    The GOP? They’ve been willing to go to the table but Reid won’t allow it. He said that he won’t allow any little change from the Dem plan in the Senate. He’s also opposed to short term CR’s. So make sure you add that to your narrative of those crazy, out of control, GOP’ers.
    The idea that this is somehow an attack on the Constitution or un-democratic is profoundly ignorant. The House controls the purse strings. They are the ones that start every budget discussion. It’s unfortunate for Dems in the country that one house of Congress is out of their control, but there you go. Attempts to influence low-information voters by making things up about the structure of our government is despicable and sadly typical of our modern Democratic party.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/01/2013 - 09:04 am.

      “Any little change”

      The “any little change” that the Republicans are demanding is defunding the health care law. That is not “a little change,” it is a major policy declaration that should have NO place in a bill to keep the government running. Republicans are refusing to pass even short-term CRs without this “little change.”
      The House Republicans, or, rather, their extremist factions, have lost the battle. They can’t stop the health care law through normal, constitutional processes, so they’re going to hold he entire government, and maybe the global economy (if the US defaults on its obligations) hostage. It’s unfortunate for them that they can’t win, but let them now face the facts. It’s time to do what grown-ups everywhere do when they can’t get their own way: admit defeat and go on.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/01/2013 - 02:20 pm.


        Tone down the rhetoric and actually follow the news. Last night the GOP offered amendments on things like striking down the Congressional privileged status. Reid wouldn’t even hear of it. They’ve offered less than a total defunding.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 10/01/2013 - 02:50 pm.

      Another name for “Every Little Change”

      Purposeful Poison Pill.

  8. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/01/2013 - 12:12 pm.

    Don’t forget this jewel:

    Posted on 10/31/12:
    “Because next week all anyone’s going to be talking about is the republican tsunami that hit on election day.”

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