And the Shutdown Played On

House Speaker John Boehner can't afford to end the shutdown too quickly.

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House Speaker John Boehner walks to a Republican strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.
House Speaker John Boehner will push for nearly a dozen piecemeal funding bills this weekend, but negotiations on ending the shutdown continue to fail.

The New York Times today paints a devastating portrait of House Speaker John Boehner as a hapless leader in a kind of legislative purgatory: unable to lead, not empowered to cut deals, in no danger of losing his job, but biding his time until inevitable defeat in a government shutdown he must prolong in order to appease the fanatics in his party.

Here’s the key section in terms of the government shutdown endgame:

[Boehner and his leadership team] are only trying to survive another day, Republican strategists say, hoping to maintain unity as long as possible so that when the Republican position collapses, they can capitulate on two issues at once — financing the government and raising the debt ceiling — and head off any internal party backlash.

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If the speaker were to move on a stopgap spending bill now, without conservative policy priorities attached, it would most likely pass with Republican and Democratic votes. But the ensuing Republican uproar — on and off Capitol Hill — would ensure that there would be no Republican votes to raise the debt ceiling. “It’s common-sense strategy,” one Republican strategist said. “If you’re going to take a bullet, you want to take just one.”

It is a common-sense strategy – in a nonsensical political world. Hostage-taking is the fashionable simile in talking about politics these days, but a more apt one might be an abusive relationship: Boehner and his team walk on egg-shells and facilitate their tormentors so as to minimize the number of blow-ups.

[ Check out political cartoons about the government shutdown.]

But it’s important to keep in mind the cost that playing out the shutdown long enough that its resolution folds into the resolution of the debt ceiling exacts on the country: Hundreds of thousands of people in employment limbo, functions of government ground to a halt, not to mention the fact that shutting down the government ends up costing more than keeping it open and that more broadly the shutdown is, by one account, draining $300 million per day from the country in economic output. That means that through Friday, the appease-the-raving-right shutdown has cost the economy $1.2 billion.

And there’s an even greater danger in the plan to wrap a shutdown surrender into a debt ceiling surrender: What happens if Boehner’s troops won’t let him surrender? The politics will necessitate him waiting until the last possible minute before running up the white flag, but that leaves little margin for error if Boehner (again) miscalculates his position. It wouldn’t be the first time. According to the Times and other reports, Boehner cut a deal with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over the summer: “If Senate Democratic leaders could accept a stopgap spending measure in the fall at levels that reflected across-the-board spending cuts, the speaker would refrain from adding extraneous measures that could precipitate a clash.” Reid held up his end of the bargain and the Senate resolution funds the government at $988 billion in discretionary spending even though Democrats want the spending level to be at $1.058 billion. That’s a major concession which is mostly ignored in discussion of the shutdown.

[ See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

Then in September Boehner cut a deal with Reid and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell whereby the House would pass a funding bill with the Obamacare defund provision conservatives had fixated on while the Senate would strip it out. Boehner’s inability to hold up his end of this bargain (and his concomitant embrace of the “defund” position) led directly to the shutdown when House Republicans refused to pass the clean bill. No wonder California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes – a Boehner loyalist no less – answered thusly when asked by the Times what the House strategy is: “You really have to call [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz, I’m not even joking about that. That’s really what you have to do, because he’s the one that set up the strategy, he’s the one that got us into this mess.”

No wonder Democrats don’t want to get into negotiations with Boehner, a leader who has repeatedly proven unable to bring his unruly, irrational conference along on a deal to keep the government open.

[ Check out political cartoons about President Obama.]

And that puts aside, of course, that the premise of negotiations right now is faulty: Republicans want Democrats to make concessions in order for the GOP to agree to things they say have to be done anyway, namely funding the government and raising the debt ceiling; when Republicans indignantly demand negotiations, in other words, they’re asking for something in exchange for nothing.

So settle in, folks, we’re not scheduled to hit the debt ceiling for nearly two weeks yet – October 17 – meaning that barring the unforeseen or a deus ex machina the government’s not reopening for a minimum of another week (adios $2.1 billion more from the economy). And all of this will occur in the service of appeasing a radical faction of a national minority party.