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How the threat of a government shutdown becomes normal

Our system has more choke points than any other and is vulnerable when compromise is equated as defeat.

A corridor marked closed to foot traffic at the U.S. Capitol during the 2013 government shutdown.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As the threat of a government shutdown returns to Congress, please allow me to run the risk of repeating myself (it’s more than a risk, I am repeating myself) and review a couple of basic elements about some of the unique features of the U.S. system of government and how it helps explain the recent repeated shutdown crises.

There is no perfect system, not even the one whispered by God to the framers of the Constitution in 1787. But if you like gridlock and the frequent possibility of a government shutdown, ours is among the best.

Our system has more choke points — narrow spots on the path to the creation of a law or a budget — than any other. Our system has two legislative bodies, both of which must agree for anything to become law. At present they are both controlled by a Republican majority, but they often are controlled by different parties, which makes the likelihood of disagreement even higher. In one of the bodies (the Senate), even a bill supported by a majority can be blocked by a minority, via the filibuster. If a law passes both both houses, it can be vetoed by the president (and, in the current situation, he does come from a different party than the one that controls Congress) and can become law only if it is passed again by a two-third majority in both houses, an eventuality that in the current situation is unimaginable.

(I won’t even go into — except in this small parenthetical aside — the possibility that the Congress and the president can agree on a law and it can still be canceled by a ruling of the unelected U.S. Supreme Court. And that possibility has nothing do with the current shutdown threat.)

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All of this you know. Most of it (not the filibuster) is in the Constitution. And our system, for the most part (I’m skipping over the Civil War part), has functioned reasonably well for more than two centuries. For most of those two centuries, talk of shutting down the government if one party or the other doesn’t get its way was relatively rare. Now it is common. What’s different?

One big difference is that we are now in the era where compromise is equated by too many of the actors as defeat. Of course when there is a failure to compromise, both sides bear some of the responsibility. But the real enthusiasm for declaring various issues to be so fundamental that no compromise is possible has been present in recent years in the Republican ranks far more than in the Democratic ranks. (See Ornstein and Mann: “It’s Even Worse than it Looks.” They traced the trend back to the strategy developed by Newt Gingrich to take Republican control of the House in 1980.)

It’s worth noting that those who currently seek to “defund” Planned Parenthood could do so if they had the votes necessary to clear all the hurdles described above in a bill that would simply do that one thing. But they don’t have the votes necessary to get such a simple bill past all the choke points.

So the next move in the game is to attach the idea to the whole budget, or something else that the insiders called “must-pass” legislation. This is a key element of how shutdown threats become normal. If such a provision is attached to the budget (or, at the moment, to a “continuing resolution” that allows the government to function without a full budget being enacted) if we don’t get what we seek, we will make it impossible for the government to function.

And because the contemporary Republican Party has become the anti-government party, the idea that shutting down the government might be preferable to compromising is not quite as alarming as it might be to those who believe the government does more good than harm. In the current chapter, as in the previous government shutdown chapters, the Republican demand that must be met or they will shut down the government is not that the government do something but that it stop doing something that it’s been doing for a long time. (In this case, providing funds to Planned Parenthood for the delivery of health care services.)

And, by the way, every story on this subject should specify that the existing law already specifies that no federal funds can be used to provide abortions. The federal funds to Planned Parenthood that the Republicans want to cut off are used to provide non-abortion health services to women, which is the vast majority of what Planned Parenthood does.

It should be noted that the chosen leaders of both houses of Congress — Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans and both chosen by the majority of Republicans in their  respective chamber — oppose shutting down the government over this issue.McConnell yesterday outlined a way to keep the government running.

Boehner and McConnell’s motives may not be what some would call pure. They apparently believe that being the party that gets blamed for an unpopular government shutdown is bad politically for Republicans. But, whatever the motive, it helps that they are trying to find a way to avoid a shutdown and greatly increases the chances that something can be worked out this time, until next time.

BREAKING NEWS ALERT: As this piece was going up, news broke that Speaker Boehner will resign as speaker and from Congress in October. By the time you read this, he may have made a clear statement of his reasons, but Boehner was under pressure from the hard-liners in his caucus to cooperate with the defund-or-shutdown strategy. Boehner has always struck me as more of an old-fashioned conservative who believed in the old system of making necessary compromises to keep the government functional. Of course he is 66 years old and has been in Congress 25 years. He also was visibly moved by Pope Francis’ speech yesterday. It will be interesting to see how he explains his decision to resign, which he will do publicly (watch one of the all-news channels) shortly (and, perhaps interestingly, as soon as the pope finishes speaking at the United Nations.