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Boehner risks his reputation in Obamacare shutdown

Republican Speaker John Boehner faced a choice between two unappetising gambles on Monday night. One option was to cut a deal with Democrats to continue federal government spending at present levels, and…

Yolo. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Republican Speaker John Boehner faced a choice between two unappetising gambles on Monday night. One option was to cut a deal with Democrats to continue federal government spending at present levels, and in so doing trigger a revolt from the radical wing of his own party that might end his speakership. The other was to dig in, precipitate a partial shut-down of the government, and risk the public assigning the blame to congressional Republicans.

Caught between grim and grimmer as far as political prospects were concerned, he has gone for option two, and the government shutdown has begun.

While the sudden reality of the derailing of the US government may come as a surprise to some, for regular viewers this represents the feared collision at the end of a long series of games of chicken between the president Barack Obama (and the Democrat-controlled senate) on one side and the Republican House on the other. Since the Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, which gave them control of the House, power and influence has steadily accrued in the hands of the radical wing of the party, elected from safe Republican constituencies on the back of a wave of anti-tax, anti-government fundamentalism among the base of primary voters.

Fervent in their ideological antipathy to the president, averse in principle to compromise, and with the only threat to their re-election coming from still-more extreme forces to their right through a primary challenge, the resulting caucus of conservative hardliners has turned the budget process into a series of crises and ultimatums.

Over the past three years there have been several moments of last-minute bullet-dodging, when Congress has threatened to shut down the government or – worse still – refuse to raise the debt ceiling and thus precipitate default on US debts already acquired, with these outcomes only being avoided through compromise at the death.

In this, the radicals have been aided by Speaker Boehner’s efforts to abide by the so-called Hastert rule, whereby legislation should only be allowed to come up for a vote when it can be passed with a majority consisting entirely of Republican votes.

A battle for the Republican soul

The present impasse over spending could be resolved swiftly if Democrats and moderate Republicans were permitted to combine their vote through a continuing resolution extending current spending. But to do so would enrage the radicals in and outside Congress and thus put Boehner’s leadership at risk. In that sense, what is playing out at present represents not a stand-off between the two parties, but rather a battle within the Republican Party between those who consider compromise with the other side an inherent evil and those who regard it as the inevitable price of keeping government functional.

The specific ground on which the radicals have chosen to make their stand this time is Obamacare, the large healthcare reform voted through by Democratic majorities during Obama’s first term and due to take effect this year. Unless its implementation is suspended for a year (by which time Republicans hope to have won the votes in the senate for its full repeal), the House refuses to approve any further government spending.

Come at me, bro. Pete Souza

Since it is the president’s signature legislative achievement, and since acquiescence would in effect mean granting the House the right to dictate terms to the rest of the government through the power of budgetary blackmail, there is near zero possibility of presidential or senatorial assent to these demands. Indeed, since Republicans’ list of demands for raising the debt limit in effect amount to implementing the manifesto of Mitt Romney, there is good reason for other branches of government to see the current row as one part of an outlandish power-grab on the part of an extreme group within one half of the legislature.

Closed for business

What does the “shutdown” of the federal government mean in the immediate term? In practice, it doesn’t mean we should expect planes to start colliding in the skies or unmanned border posts to be overrun. “Essential” workers can legally be retained in service with the hope of back pay when the crisis is resolved. But as this chart illustrates it does mean hundreds of thousands of government staff parked at home indefinitely without pay, many government offices shuttered, and millions of dollars of government spending and contracting cancelled or suspended.

This is bad for many reasons, but two have particular weight. While some activities may be “non-essential” in the very short term, many of these government activities provide services which over time the public will increasingly miss. The military may remain in place and welfare administration may not have stopped dead, but as time goes on the closure of permit offices, national parks and parts of the justice system, to name but a few examples, will begin to be felt by more and more of the population as they try and fail to access them.

Abe would not approve. EPA/Shawn Thew

Second, government spending is a vital component in the overall US economy, and has been even more so in recent years as the financial crisis and recession brought the private sector to its knees. While there have been tentative signs of recovery, the sudden withdrawal of huge tranches of government spending from circulation – both from the pockets of direct employees and from the vast number of individuals and businesses who rely on government contracts for their living – will deliver a major shock to the economy. The precise consequences are unknowable, but the short and definite version of what consequences it implies is: nothing good.

The great gamble

A key component in conventional thinking about the prospect of government shutdown until this moment has been the memory that last time it occurred. In 1995, congressional Republicans under the leadership of Newt Gingrich were blamed by the public for unreasonable behaviour, providing Bill Clinton with the opportunity to rebuild his own agenda and popularity.

The assumption has been that Republicans today would wish to avoid a shutdown for fear of a repeat of the same outcome. As it transpires, they have proven prepared to take their chances. That may be because they have reached an informed view that this time they can pass the blame to the president more successfully. Or it may be because radicals Republicans are sufficiently ideologically adamant, and have sufficiently little to lose personally by taking a hard-line posture, that they simply don’t care about the consequences and have drawn a line on principle.

Boehner, at least, and his Republican leadership counterpart in the senate Mitch McConnell, will be painfully aware of the risk they are taking with the party’s image. If the public shows signs of being as unforgiving in its assessment of Republican actions as some have foretold, then he will be forced to revisit his bleak choice between the radicals whose support he relies upon, and the centre-ground of public opinion his party needs if it aspires to future electoral victories at the national level.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. Edward Campbell

    Old Left-wing Geek at Northern New Mexico high desert country

    What reputation. Even his mates consider him a creep.

  2. Janeen Harris


    Democracy is undermined when the opposition has to bring down the government. How those crazy, largely christian republicans think, is frightening. To bust a gut for the soul purpose of denying health care to needy people seems like insanity, not to mention unchristian. Conservative politics is full of hypocrites .and phonies, and they all worship the great god $.

  3. Stephen Morey

    Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Linguistics at La Trobe University

    This crisis has arisen in part because the last United States House of Representatives election was a fair election.

    The boundaries of House districts are done by the State Legislatures, and particularly the Republican dominated ones have gerrymandered the districts to favour themselves.

    The Democrats clearly won the vote with 48.3% to the Republicans 46.9%. But because of the shameless electoral rigging, the Democrats won only 201 seats to the Republicans 234.

    The state of Pennsylvania, for example, with over 50% of the vote, the Democrats won just 5 districts to the Republicans 13. This is not a fair representation of the voters wishes.

    I know that electoral reform is a topic that people are not much interested in. But if you have unfair electoral systems, you get bad results for the population.

  4. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Is that Ray Charles singing "Here We Go Again"........why I do declare, it is.

    The Americans must have a death wish. Already $17 trillion dollars in debt, they are faced with a crisis one way or the other.

    Sooner or later the country will have to face up to some brutal facts and have a hard look at the way they live. Too many rich people, too many poor people.

    It's an amazing country that fascinates us all, but sometimes it is so crazy it beggars imagination.

  5. Dennis M

    Author, Philosopher, Carer.

    I hope that the U.S. shuts down permanently. It is dragging our world down to depths rarely seen.

    Its promotion of endless war and infinite greed and imperialism is going to ensure that we end up in a nuclear war that will end the human race.

    The U.S. is a rogue nation. It's demise is to be hoped for and soon!

    1. Dennis M

      Author, Philosopher, Carer.

      In reply to Dennis M

      Apologies to all for the appearance of an unwanted apostrophe in the last sentence!

    2. Peter Hindrup


      In reply to Dennis M

      My visions of a better world ---- the US closed down, all its bods packed up and gone home, Israel without the muscle which underpins it behaviour, suddenly beginning to negotiate seriously for some sort of survival ---
      Oh well, it was a pleasant vision.

    3. Dennis M

      Author, Philosopher, Carer.

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      Peter, we who see the problems created by Israel and its mentor, the U.S., have to awaken the sheeple as to where the world will end up if the U.S. is not stopped soon. It might be too late already.

      Capitalism and imperialism cannot be allowed to continue! They are dragging us down further and further.