Jonathan Chait at TNR rounds it up here.
I’ve been too absorbed by my book projects and by Australian politics (of which more soon) to pay a lot of attention to the forthcoming US elections, but it seems to be widely projected that the Republicans could regain control of the House of Representatives. What surprises me is that no-one has drawn the obvious inference as to what will follow, namely a shutdown of the US government.
It seems obvious to me that a shutdown will happen – the Republicans of today are both more extreme and more disciplined than last time they were in a position to shut down the government, and they did it then. And they hate Obama at least as much now as they hated Clinton in 1995 (maybe not quite as much as they hated him by 2000, but they are getting there faster this time).
The big question is how a shutdown will be resolved. It seems to me that it will be a lot harder for Obama to induce the Republicans to back down than it was for Clinton. IIRC, no piece of legislation proposed by Obama has received more than a handful of votes in the House, and (unlike the case with Bob Dole in 1995) no aspiring Republican presidential candidate will have an interest in resolving the problem – the base would be furious. On the other hand, the price
Obama would have to pay if he capitulatedthe Republicans would demand from Obama in a capitulation would be huge, certainly enough to end his presidency at one term. So, I anticipate a lengthy shutdown, and some desperate expedients to keep things running.
I’ve been thinking the same thing. Also, expect many, many fake scandals; we’ll be having hearings over accusations of corruption on the part of Michelle Obama’s hairdresser, janitors at the Treasury, and Larry Summers’s doctor’s dog. If you don’t believe me, you weren’t paying attention during the Clinton years; remember, we had months of hearings over claims that something was fishy in the White House travel office (nothing was).
And if anyone remotely connected to the administration should die — oh, boy.
Oh, and you can be sure that many media figures will play right along.
This may sound hyperbolic. It’s not. In the Clinton era, House Republicans held two weeks of hearings investigating the Clintons’ Christmas card list, and the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform fired a bullet into a “head-like object” — reportedly a melon — in his backyard to test his conspiracy theories about Vince Foster. All told, over the last six years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, that same committee unilaterally issued 1,052 subpoenas — that’s not a typo — to investigate baseless allegations of misconduct. That translates to an average of a politically-inspired subpoena every other day for six consecutive years, including weekends, holidays, and congressional recesses.
It would almost certainly be worse in 2011 and 2012. Indeed, the man positioned to lead the committee — reformed alleged car thief Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — has already said he’s inclined to leave “corporate America” alone, so he can attack the White House relentlessly.
The case against this happening is that conventional wisdom holds that the shutdown was a fiasco for Newt Gingrich that members of congress will be loathe to repeat.
I think the case for it happening is twofold. One is that conservative politics is now much more dominated by a set of overlapping, competing media figures who are more interested in ratings than in majorities. The other is that if John Boehner has the courage of my convictions, he’ll believe that a government shutdown will risk sending the economy into a double-dip recession and that ultimately Barack Obama will be blamed for the bad results regardless of what polling says in the moment. Now does Boehner have those convictions? I have no idea. And would he really be so bold and immoral as to roll the dice on that basis? I also have no idea. But it could happen. To an extent, I think the functioning of our political system depends on the key actors not fully understanding how it works.
I think the answer to that is actually “no”. I think the Republicans have conceded that actually shutting down the government was bad for Newt Gingrich and bad for Republicans. It ultimately painted the GOP as the uncompromising party, and of course the economic rebound let Bill Clinton and the Democrats regain their approval rating.
What I think we’ll instead see is a more extreme version of what we’re seeing today, which is that Republicans will effectively shut down the government, but keep the lights on at enough agencies that most people notice the government is still around, just less responsive than it use to. We’ve seen this movie before, in both 1998 and 2006, when the House majority, anticipating a favorable political climate coming soon, decided not to engage in political confrontation. And somehow, we’re seeing it today, thanks largely to baroque (and broke) Senate procedure. The appointments process for sub-cabinet officials, District and Circuit Court judges, etc., has already slowed to a crawl. Should Republicans gain even the House majority, it will slow further. Regulatory actions will be subject to scrutiny from subpoena-empowered cranks, which will slow the federal bureaucracy from doing much of anything new, including implementing needed portions of the Affordable Care Act and the financial reform bill. People will still get their Social Security checks. But if you were expecting any agency to do something new that might help you out, you’re probably going to be SOL if Republicans take back the House.
The thing is that if we’re talking about a government shutdown, then what we’re talking about is an inability to get appropriations bills signed into law by October 1 — and an inability to agree to (routine) temporary measures to keep agencies funded while negotiations continue. The form this has to take is either Congress doesn’t produce anything — in which case they’ll take the immediate blame — or they produce something that Obama vetoes. It’s not an easy trick for Congress to manage to pass something that is generally popular but so unacceptable to the Democrats that Obama would have to veto. In the case of a divided Congress, even if Democrats only hold a very slim margin in the Senate, I’d say it’s just about impossible.
As far short-term fallout, I agree with Beaudrot that it’s difficult to see a shutdown hurting Obama. Yes, within the GOP echo chamber, he’ll obviously be blamed for it…but within that world, he’s blamed for everything. But for everyone else, it’s very hard for “Congress” to win any public relations battles. Everyone hates Congress; everyone always hates Congress. If government offices are closed, if national parks are closed…does anyone really believe that John Boehner is going to win a contest with Barack Obama in the battle for public opinion? Especially since reporters have been primed by the 1995-1996 confrontation to blame the incoming GOP Congress and not the Democratic president. Of course, this gets even easier for Obama if the stalemate is within Congress, with a Democratic Senate refusing to accept budget cuts pushed by a GOP House. And, really, is any pol better positioned to go on TV and play the above-it-all, willing-to-compromise president than Barack Obama? In sorrow and rather than in anger, he’ll go before the cameras and say that he’d love to cut a deal but he just can’t throw grandma out of her nursing home and close down Johnny’s school…as we know, as unpopular as it is in the abstract, most federal spending is extremely popular when it comes to specifics, and it won’t be hard for the White House to find all the tragic stories in any package of cuts.
Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:
Republicans are smart enough to know that the last shutdown was a major political loser; by digging in their heels and forcing the federal government to close down parks, offices and everything in between, Gingrich-era Republicans handed President Clinton the brush he needed to paint them as right-wing extremists and ardent obstructionists. As Bernstein notes in his post, Gingrich failed in his reading of the president. He saw Clinton as weak, when in fact, the opposite was true.
Minority Leader John Boehner seems unlikely to make the same mistake. President Obama is entering his third year with a string of significant legislative achievements, successes which Clinton did not have. With that, Boehner has far more reason to think that Obama will push back against him than Gingrich had for Clinton. It seems very unlikely that he would lead a government shutdown and give Obama that kind of opening, especially when he is extremely well-positioned to play the conciliatory mediator.
To go back to a post I wrote last week, it’s far more likely that Republicans will adopt the strategy of 1997-2000 — endless investigations of the White House, regardless of whether there is anything significant to investigate. I’d be surprised if impeachment were seriously on the table, but at the very least, we can expect loud GOP investigations into ACORN and the New Black Panther Party (I wish I were joking).
As for the Senate (where Democrats will have a smaller majority), my guess is that Republicans will continue their unanimous opposition and use their greater numbers to all but halt Senate business, leaving Obama with few avenues for advancing legislation or confirming nominees. Either way, if Republicans do well this fall, we can certainly expect them to turn the obstruction up to 11 for 2011 and beyond.