Snatching Shutdown Defeat from the Jaws of Spending Victory

House Republicans shut down the government despite getting everything they wanted on spending.

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The ostensible reason House Republicans decided to shut down the government is that President Obama, not surprisingly, refuses to repeal, delay or gut Obamacare, his signature legislative achievement. And public opinion seems to be firmly on Obama's side: An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that neither a government shutdown nor a debt ceiling default, which is the next pressure point available to the GOP, should be used to derail Obamacare, even as voters remain split on the law itself. Poll after poll shows public disapproval of the GOP's tactics.

The tragedy of the situation, though, is that, in another sense, the GOP is fighting a battle it has already won, because Senate Democrats and President Obama are willing to enshrine into law the spending levels that House Republicans have been asking for since they seized the House majority in 2010.

As this graph from the Center for American Progress' Michael Linden (a former colleague of mine) and Harry Stein shows, the spending level in the Senate's continuing resolution – which was passed by the upper chamber and would keep the government open if the House would just adopt it – is not only below that enshrined in the 2011 debt ceiling deal, known as the Budget Control Act, but is barely more than that envisioned by the 2014 budget written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the GOP's fiscal policy darling.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

If House Republicans were actually concerned about government spending levels, they would be pocketing the Senate bill and running away with glee. If they were looking to negotiate a budget "compromise" when it comes to spending, they already have it and then some.

But if this shutdown debacle has proven anything, it's that the House Republicans are not actually concerned about spending. Instead, they're using a crisis to implement an agenda that they couldn't convince voters to support at the ballot box. (After all, if Americans hate Obamacare so much, as Republicans continually insist, it's a little odd that they re-elected, by a not particularly close margin, the fellow whose name is on the law.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

During previous battles over whether or not to shut down the government or default on the national debt, the GOP put forth proposals that, at least on the surface, were about spending. But not only are they currently attempting to use a shutdown to force through their health care policy, look at what they contemplated demanding for a debt ceiling increase this time around: repeal of some provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Ryan's tax reform plan, blocking net neutrality, implementing the bad joke known as the REINS Act, tossing aside a bevy of environmental protections and means testing Medicare. Oh, and some Republicans wanted an anti-contraception provision added to the bill that would prevent a shutdown, because contraception and funding the government have so very much to do with each other.

These are not the actions of a party concerned with spending levels, even though that's what a government shutdown is technically all about.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

So yes, it is entirely likely that, in the end, Republicans will be forced to cave and accept a re-opening of the government that does not involve gutting Obamacare (save for maybe a face-saving concession from the Democrats, such as repealing a tax on medical devices that everyone seems to hate). And they will, if the polls are any indication, be "blamed" for causing the shutdown and lose some of whatever popularity they have left.

But in the grander sense, they already pulled a fast one by getting Senate Democrats to almost unthinkingly accept levels of government spending much closer to the House's ideal plan than to Obama's budget; that funding level, if it becomes the baseline for future negotiations, will undermine important investments in education and science for years to come. If only Republicans had the sense to know when they've already won, the government could open back up.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Republican Obamacare Rhetoric Is Recycled from the Social Security Fight
  • Read Peter Roff: World War II Veterans Don't Let the ‘Shutdown' Stop Them
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