Posted by on October 11, 2013 in Blog

By Isaac Levey
Legal Fellow

The last few days have offered the most hope we’ve seen so far that the now 11-day-old government shutdown may soon come to an end, and that the U.S. might avoid an unprecedented, potentially catastrophic default on its loan obligations. Reports this morning indicate that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is working to round up support in the GOP for a short-term fix that would reopen the government and, more importantly, raise the debt ceiling and allow the U.S. to pay its bills.

The latest proposals are just coming in as we speak, but a rough outline appears to be taking shape. Despite President Obama’s insistence that he won’t negotiate until the Government is reopened and the debt ceiling raised, he has met with GOP leaders more than once. This led to a rather amusing argument by the White House Thursday that meeting with political opponents to discuss and bargain over important matters of public concern isn’t a negotiation, but this meeting is good news even apart from its silly semantic entertainment. Yesterday the GOP proposed raising the debt ceiling by six weeks, but the White House refused, insisting that any bill also turn the government’s lights back on and end the shutdown. And as the President has given ground through his willingness to talk, the Republicans have given more important ground: they are now apparently willing to pass bills that will reopen the Federal Government, and more importantly, raise the debt ceiling. The bills are not completely “clean” – that is, they do attach some changes in the law to continuing appropriations – but apparently, all those changes are somewhat sensible: they involve easing cuts put in place by sequestration, and some Medicare reforms the President has previously supported. Other proposals are coming from McConnell and Republican Senators, and also include ideas with fairly widespread bipartisan support. And most importantly, even the most conservative members of the House GOP now seem to realize they won’t be able to do anything to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Some Republicans are angrier about that than others, but it’s finally starting to dawn on them that their attempt to hijack the entire Federal Government over a law that was passed by Congress more than three years ago cannot succeed.

If this situation holds and the crisis resolves itself as indicated, it looks like not simply a win, but a straight knockout for the Democrats. The shutdown will end and default will be averted (consequences that are good for the country as well as the President’s party), and President Obama won’t have given any ground on his signature priorities. More importantly, the White House will have sent a strong message that budget negotiations, particularly where they concern must-pass legislation that keeps the lights on or maintains the full faith and credit of the United States, are not appropriate for great legislative change. This is not to say that the GOP has no right to participate in government, or that laws like Obamacare are totally set in stone once they’re enacted. But major changes of policy should be obtained by compromise and legislative give-and-take in exchange for other major policy initiatives, not in exchange for something like the debt ceiling: preventing an American default is not a Democratic policy preference, but absolutely essential to maintaining the world’s financial system.

You might wonder, if this political calculus is correct, why the Republicans appear to be giving up. The answer is two-fold: first, they’re not giving up as much as it might appear at first glance. The House GOP’s current proposal would only raise the debt ceiling through about November 20, the week before Thanksgiving, ostensibly to make more time for further budget negotiations. It would essentially be a stopgap measure, giving Congress and the President a little more time to work out a comprehensive budget without the looming specter of the consequences of default. This is more or less what Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the one-time GOP nominee for Vice President who has been strangely invisible during this crisis, just proposed in an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal. So this solution would defuse the ticking time bomb right before it explodes, but it’s entirely possible that we’ll be right back here next month, and the GOP will use the same tactics it’s using now. Maybe then, they will get some actual changes to Obamacare, at least if they can offer something more productive than “scrap the entire thing.”

But the more important reason why the Republicans are apparently giving up the fight is that this loss is far better, politically, than the alternative. As House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) seemed to concede Friday, it is no coincidence that this is happening contemporaneously with a slew of polling results being released about the shutdown and looming default. The data revealed, unambiguously, a political consequence that was completely predictable (and predicted): the shutdown has been a complete disaster for the Republicans. A Gallup poll revealed the lowest favorability rating for the GOP that either political party has ever had since Gallup started asking the question in 1992. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll revealed that, while the American people aren’t in love with President Obama or the Democrats, they certainly like them more than the GOP: only 24% of respondents had a positive opinion of the Republicans, and over twice as many had a negative opinion. The “Tea Party movement” is even more disliked. 53% blame congressional Republicans more than the President for the shutdown, more than blamed the GOP at any point during prior shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. And perhaps most revealing was a question asking whether the respondents believed political leaders were acting as strong leaders and standing up for what they believed in; or were putting a political agenda ahead of the good of the country. Where the President was concerned, that split was almost 50-50. But with respect to congressional Republicans, a full seventy percent said they are putting political interests ahead of the nation as a whole. Nothing makes a political faction look worse than being openly political, but that’s exactly how the American people see the GOP.

And so the GOP has been forced to sue for peace in its war on the Federal Government, much to the dismay of the hardliners in the House. It’s still early, and there is always time for negotiations to collapse: in 2011, the last time Congress’ recalcitrance on the debt ceiling almost caused a default – and did cause a stock market crash – the President didn’t sign a bill raising the ceiling until literally hours before the Treasury’s deadline. We’re a whopping six days before the date Treasury has said it needs to borrow more money; there’s time for the President and Congress to reach at least three deals and have them all fall apart. But it looks like we just might get out of this without default – and with the only damage to our country being the sheer ridiculousness of our political system, on full display for the rest of the world.

comments powered by Disqus