As the partial shutdown of the federal government looks set to continue into a second week, it’s easy– as you’ll see elsewhere on this page– to point fingers at a Republican Party seemingly consumed by efforts to overturn President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform legislation at all costs. Looking back over the past few years, an intransigent and destructive G.O.P. is nothing new. A Democratic Party that has sunk to the same level in an effort to “win” the shutdown, however, is.
The origins of the current shutdown lie in Congress’ failure to pass a continuing resolution that would extend discretionary spending beyond the previously authorized period, which ended last Monday. That Congress has come to rely on continuing resolutions in lieu of a comprehensive budget– which requires the passage of 12 separate appropriations bills– isn’t unusual in and of itself. This year, however, congressional Republicans declined to pass a continuing resolution without a rider defunding the Affordable Care Act, and Senate Democrats didn’t cave.
That kind of narrow-minded obstinacy is nothing new for the current House Republicans, many of who were elected with the backing of conservative grassroots in the 2010 midterms. While the Affordable Care Act– popularly known as “Obamacare”– is a flawed piece of legislation that made its way into law under questionable circumstances and benefited from a similarly dubious ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts when reviewed by the Supreme Court, holding the government hostage– and eventually shutting it down– over a constitutionally valid law for purely partisan purposes remains unacceptable.
Of course, for the world outside Washington, D.C., the shutdown may as well not be in effect. While mass government furloughs– and the corresponding emergence of “shutdown specials” for hungry and thirsty staffers– have had a visible impact in the nation’s capital, as has the closure of national parks and other tourist attractions around the country, almost everything else the federal government spends money on has continued to receive funding. From visa applications and Social Security checks to military salaries, life will go on as close to normal as may be expected.
The few spending items that have suffered– child nutrition and development programs, disaster management agencies and so on– have been the subject of funding attempts by Republicans through the shutdown. Despite the value that such programs add, however, Democrats have refused to consider restoring funding– not out of any principled objection to the programs but rather, according to a senior administration official, because “we are winning.”
Putting aside the reality that public opinion is close to split on whether Republicans or President Obama are more to blame for the shutdown, banking on the blame from government dysfunction accruing to the other side– rather than proactively engaging with Republicans to marginalize any peripheral impact of the shutdown– demonstrates a distinct lack of both leadership and principle. Yes, it makes political sense, and yes, such cold calculation may compare favorably to blind dogmatism, but such willing indifference does little credit to a self-proclaimed “adult in the room.”
Thankfully, the costs incurred by a government shutdown are largely trivial compared to those that would ensue from failing to raise the debt limit. House Republicans have consistently shown that they shouldn’t be trusted with managing either, given their proclivity for political stunts over substantive policymaking. The Obama administration and Senate Democrats are dangerously close, regrettably, to doing the same.
Marshall Watkins’ political column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at [email protected]