The current shutdown of the federal government and upcoming showdown over the debt ceiling has caused many people to ask who is to blame for this gridlock. The media, in its effort to try to report both sides of the story, often end up giving balanced treatment to an unbalanced phenomenon. What we have is an extremist element within the minority political party that refuses to accept the results of the previous elections. Leading up to the shutdown, House Republicans demanded defunding of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) in exchange for passing a continuing resolution budget that would fund the rest of the federal government for a brief period. Republicans also threatened to prevent the debt ceiling from being raised that could result in a catastrophic default on our national debt if their demands are not met. In making these demands, Republicans are attempting to thwart the Constitutional order of our government while threatening financial and economic chaos.
The tension on display in Washington this month has been building up for some time. Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Thomas Mann, a scholar at the centrist Brookings Institute, are well-renowned scholars who have studied Washington politics for over 4 decades. In April 2012, they jointly authored an article, lamenting the worst Washington dysfunction of their entire careers. They observed the following:
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition… Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach…
Since the Clinton presidency, [the Democratic Party] has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics… While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post…
In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies.
However, since the current shutdown began, a few moderate Republicans have begun to speak out against the extremists within their own party. Commenting on the GOP’s ongoing attempt to defund and repeal Obamacare, Senator John McCain reminded his Republican colleagues “the Affordable Care Act was a major issue in 2012. The people spoke– they re-elected the President of the United States.” Another more moderate Republican, Representative Tom Cole recently said, “it’s awfully hard to repeal Obamacare when a guy named Obama is President.”
Thwarting the Constitutional Process
I probably cannot convince most Republicans to like Obamacare right now (although my co-contributor’s recent post on Obamacare is a great place to start). But it’s important for Republicans to understand that to overturn major policies, they have to win elections first. The minority party cannot completely overrule the majority in a democracy. We can endlessly debate the merits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but at the end of the day, the law was passed by Congress, signed by the President and affirmed by the Supreme Court. ACA is now settled law. Even House Speaker John Boehner acknowledged this fact right after the 2012 election when he told ABC’s Diane Saywer, “It’s pretty clear the president was re-elected. Obamacare is the law of the land.” (It’s worth recalling that the GOP was for ACA-style health care reform before it was against it.) Holding the entire federal government hostage and threatening a financial crisis to demand the destruction of ACA is an unprecedented legislative tactic. Republicans are seeking to nullify the results of the last election via a deeply undemocratic pathway.
House Republicans’ current shutdown demands are akin to telling your mortgage company that before you pay your bill, they must first lower your interest rate and give you a 60-day payment extension. If they decline, you refuse to pay, burn the bank and your house down and then accuse them of not compromising.
If the Republicans succeed in extracting legislative concessions for simply allowing the government to run, the future of our democracy is imperiled because future minority parties will feel emboldened to use these tactics again to repeal laws they do not like, triggering more manufactured crises. President Obama will hand his successor a severely crippled Oval Office and handing the public a real likelihood of future financial crises if he gives in to the opposition’s demands. This is a fight to preserve the Constitutional order of our government.
Ironically, most Republicans ignore that they have already achieved an almost complete capitulation from Democrats on the spending debate. Democrats’ insistence that the House pass a “clean” continuing resolution to end the shutdown would keep spending at sequestration levels, a level far below what Democrats would like. The current spending levels are even less than the original budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
A lot of the paralysis in Washington can be explained by the 2010 redistricting. It allowed Republicans, which controlled a majority of the state legislatures across the country, to redraw an electoral map for 2012 that strongly tilted in their favor, resulting in 234 House seats for Republicans and 201 for Democrats. However, Democrats won the popular vote for House seats nationwide by approximately 1.4 million votes. Thus, a minority of voters are now represented by the Republican House majority, that has completely hijacked the will of most American voters. If the Democrats had House representation in proportion to their votes in 2012, we would not be experiencing a government shutdown and showdown over the debt ceiling.
Redistricting works both ways and in the past, the Democrats tilted the playing field in their favor, which is why we need to have an independent redistricting process nationwide. But in the meantime, there is a large caucus of extremely conservative, tea party-affiliated House Republicans who are from uncompetitive districts that will not punish them for shutting down the government and pushing us towards a historic default on our debt. A recent CBS poll showed that 72 percent of Americans disapprove of shutting down the government over Obamacare. However, the same poll revealed that 57 percent of Tea Party supporters approve of the shutdown. Until our most extreme representatives pay a price for their extremism, the rest of us will continue to suffer.
Currently, there are enough votes in the House right now between moderate Republicans and the Democrats to end the shutdown by passing a “clean” continuing resolution (without any Obamacare defund or delay riders). However, Speaker John Boehner continues to refuse to allow a vote.
Voters, particularly those from districts whose representatives supported the shutdown over Obamacare, need to remember what has happened this October when they go to the polls in November 2014. Unless the extremists in the GOP are punished at the polls for their antics, I’m afraid we’re doomed to more of these manufactured crises. And if President Obama gives in to the Republicans’ demands before they agree to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling, the Constitutional order of government will have received lasting damage.