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

This is not fundamentally an argument between the two parties, it is an argument between two factions of the Republican Party.

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.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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.

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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.