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The Nihilist Government Shutdown
Past shutdowns haven’t resulted in policy wins or political victories for the instigators. And the shutdown that may start this weekend will be even dumber than those that came before.
WELL, HERE WE ARE AGAIN, on the brink of another government shutdown, expected to start at midnight, unless a deal can be struck. This shutdown may be the stupidest yet. But will anybody even remember it once it’s done? And if so, who will get the blame?
First, let’s put things in perspective. The dysfunction of our federal government in discharging its most basic responsibilities is now so unsurprising, so expected even, that it’s necessary to distinguish between the Merely Very Bad and the Seriously Truly Disastrous. Remember the last major standoff between President Joe Biden and House Republicans? The one where months of dancing on the edge of a debt default ended when Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy struck a deal in May? At stake was a potential global economic meltdown.
Compared to that crisis, this shutdown will be a walk in the park.
(Which, incidentally, is something millions of Americans won’t be able to do much of during the shutdown: walk around in national parks, most of which will likely be gated shut.)
Since 1977, when the modern congressional budgeting process was put in place, there have been twenty “funding gaps” for the federal government—occasions when an old budget expired before new funding was secured. Half of those funding gaps lasted three or fewer days, and so didn’t really result in shutdowns, and most of the others resulted in only partial shutdowns.
“I’m not a fan of government shutdowns. I’ve seen a few of them over the years,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week. Since 1985, when McConnell was first sworn in as a senator, there have been eight funding gaps, and only three of them have lasted more than five days. Why so few? Because a shutdown is rarely in anyone’s political interest. And so even though the budget process almost never works the way it’s supposed to,1 Congress and the president can usually put together enough delays and deals to keep the funding going.
So when a budget shutdown does happen, it usually happens intentionally—because either some congressional faction or the president has a specific goal in mind, and is holding the budget process hostage.
MCCONNELL, IN HIS REMARKS LAST WEEK, said it’s a strategy that doesn’t work: Shutdowns “never have produced a policy change and they’ve always been a loser for Republicans politically.”
Let’s check the record, looking at the big shutdowns during McConnell’s tenure in the Senate.
First, there was the clash between Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton, resulting in a five-day shutdown in November 1995 and a few weeks later a twenty-one-day shutdown of the whole government that lasted from mid-December 1995 into early January 1996. What caused it? Republicans, riding high after the 1994 midterms swept them into control of both chambers of Congress, wanted to force Clinton to accept straitened budget measures. After three weeks, though, the Republicans backed down, as polls made clear that Americans were not on their side: public opinion opposed the shutdown and blamed it on the GOP. The shutdown contributed to the Republicans’ reputation for extremism and arguably contributed to Clinton’s re-election.
The next big shutdown came in 2013, arising primarily from Tea Party Republicans’ effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). They had already in 2011 used a fight over raising the debt ceiling to force automatic budget cuts (“sequestration”), and by coincidence, as the 2013 budget fight was reaching a climax, the debt ceiling was again about to be reached, raising the stakes. The government shutdown began on October 1, 2013 and lasted for sixteen days. House Republicans at one point offered to fund all of the government except for Obamacare, and they refused to negotiate with President Barack Obama on any other matter. It was Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, who put together a workable alternative plan to restore funding, leaving House Republicans with both a policy failure and a political failure.
The next shutdown lasted for thirty-four (or, depending on how you count, thirty-five) days, from December 2018 into January 2019. It arose because President Donald Trump demanded Congress appropriate $5.7 billion for his border wall with Mexico. It ended when Trump agreed to a temporary restoration of funding for a few weeks, threatening a second shutdown if the wall didn’t soon get funded. Instead of another shutdown, though, he opted to declare a national emergency, an action that allowed him to divert money from the Department of Defense and spend it on his wall instead. (The constitutionality of this move was widely criticized.)
In the Trump case—the longest government shutdown ever—Republicans once again failed to get what they wanted, and once again took the blame, even though this time they were in control of both the White House and the Senate.
Which is to say, McConnell is right: The record shows that trying to conduct policy via shutdowns has not worked for Republicans. And trying to score political points via shutdowns has not worked either.
THIS TIME AROUND, the wing of the House Republican Conference that is pushing for a shutdown—really just a subset of the Freedom Caucus—has no clear goal in mind. The House GOP is already pursuing an impeachment against Biden with unclear allegations and no evidence; what more do they think they can score with a government shutdown? Some have grumbled about wanting to latch on to Ukrainian war funding, which seems like an issue that won’t turn out well for them. It’s possible, too, that some of them think the shutdown might do what Donald Trump hopes it will do: contribute to the delay of his prosecution.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, whose weak grip on the speakership is a major factor in the current political mess, has said that some of his fellow Republicans just want to “burn the whole place down.”
On Friday afternoon, after McCarthy made a last-ditch effort to get a short-term funding bill through the House, some critics pointed to Matt Gaetz as the person chiefly to blame for the looming shutdown. “Unfortunately, a handful of people, and in particular a party of one, Matt Gaetz, has chosen to put his own agenda, his own personal agenda, above all else,” said Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) after the failed vote. “There is only one person to blame for any potential government shutdown, and that is Matt Gaetz. He’s not a conservative Republican; he’s a charlatan.” Lawler previously called the intransigent faction “clowns” acting with “stupidity.”
Indeed, if you look at the list of twenty-one Republicans who voted against the last-ditch bill on Friday, guaranteeing its defeat, you’ll see Gaetz’s name alongside several others you might recognize from the House GOP’s usual anti-everything wing: Boebert, Greene, Biggs, Gosar, Crane, Buck, Nehls, and more.
By their actions, the members of this faction have left themselves with no leverage to accomplish anything of substance—that is, if there were anything that they wanted to accomplish. And they have succeeded in the improbable feat of making McCarthy seem like a moderate who wants to govern responsibly.
So will this faction of screw-ups get blamed for their actions—or will the American people blame the wider Republican party?
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A shutdown is unlikely to have a huge and lasting effect. The way most people are affected by the federal government is Social Security programs and the checks they get deposited (about 67 million people), Medicare and Medicaid enrollment (around 150 million people), and the mail being delivered the U.S. Postal Service (all of us). None of those services will be halted with the shutdown.
But national parks will be inaccessible in many cases. Delays could be felt in various government services—including emergency management, air-traffic control, and food-safety measures. Some important welfare programs, affecting millions of people, will shut down. Hundreds of thousands of government employees will be furloughed (that is, sent home without pay, although they can expect to receive back pay when work resumes), while many others will, awkwardly, be expected to go to work but without paychecks for the duration of the shutdown.
Overall, then, for most of the 330 million people living in the United States, the government shutdown will not be directly experienced as a big deal—inconvenient for some, but hardly noticeable for most, and far, far less disruptive than, say, the ordeal we lived through during the pandemic. “Bottom line,” says Joseph Grogan, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Schaeffer Center in Los Angeles, “I don’t think people will notice this unless the shutdown extends beyond thirty days.”
So to the extent that the American people care about the shutdown, it will largely be because they will be sick of hearing about it in the news. A large majority of the country is tired of the arguing and fighting, and will see this shutdown as a symptom of dysfunction. And it will not be difficult for Biden and the Democrats to put the blame on the Republican party as a whole.
TALKING THIS WEEK about the pending shutdown, former House Speaker Paul Ryan said it makes his fellow Republicans “look like fools. We look like we can’t govern.”
He added: “It’s nihilism, is what it is.”
That’s right. And Biden and the Democrats might heed the advice of one Walter Sobchak: “These men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Just about the only leverage the Freedom Caucus Nihilists have is that they can threaten McCarthy’s speakership. Beyond that, all they can do is talk, talk, talk to news outlets compulsively covering the shutdown. That’s not much leverage—but what the hell do they need leverage for, if they have no goal? What’s the use of fighting if you have nothing to fight for?