WASHINGTON — Don’t like the mess that led to Tuesday’s government shutdown? Nothing’s going to change anytime soon.
The latest self-inflicted crisis, the result of a bitter deadlock between Republicans and Democrats, is another illustration of the growing inability of the nation’s elected officials to govern in any logical, collegial fashion. The consequences for operating the government for the next few weeks, let alone the next few years, are daunting. New budget crises are only days away. Federal workers won’t know if paychecks are coming regularly, agencies can’t plan, contractors can’t be sure of payments, financial markets can’t be reassured.
The White House and Congress aren’t talking, let alone negotiating. On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats live in separate worlds, their leaders huddled with their loyalists in well-hidden offices.
They preside over a wary, increasingly cynical electorate that will find Tuesday’s impasse is the first volley in a season of showdowns. The government faces the threat of default if it doesn’t agree to increase its debt limit by Oct. 17, the second threat of default in less than three years. A few weeks later, government funding is again expected to run out, setting up another budget confrontation.
Brinkmanship is hardly new in American politics. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, a major force in tearing down decades-old segregation barriers, passed after tying up the Senate for 60 days. Government shutdowns, too, are not new. In late 1995 and early 1996, the federal government was forced to close on two separate occasions for 28 days.
But those fights taught lawmakers lessons that lasted. Constituents made it clear they didn’t like gridlock, and Congress and the president were reluctant to resort to such threats right away.
Today, those lessons are largely forgotten. This week’s push-it-to-the-edge drama continues a pattern that began in earnest four years ago. Each chapter triggers the same reaction. Tweeters and bloggers erupt with outrage, Congress’ approval ratings plunge, attack ads begin instantly.
Yet the politicians don’t change their strategies. Buoyed by legions of partisan cheerleaders and fundraisers, they vow not to give in next time. In the days ahead, Democrats will say they stood up to those who want to dilute the Affordable Care Act. Republicans will boast this week’s drama is the latest chapter in their decades-old crusade to pare the size of government. Fundraising pitches went out Monday.
Slowly but with increasing confidence, the two political parties reflect how their ideological wings have taken them over. The grassroots tea party movement is the dominant force in the Republican Party, and liberals are in clear control of the Democratic Party.
Technology fuels this uniformity. Congressional districts are drawn almost block by block to ensure ideological purity. So while Congress’ job approval numbers are dismal, voters routinely re-elect most members.
“The unpopularity of Congress doesn’t flow through the members, because so many are in safe districts,” explained William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.
It’s a recipe for digging in. Jenny Beth Martin, the Tea Party Patriots’ national coordinator, called the House of Representatives’ vote to delay Obamacare for a year “truly inspiring.” “Now is the time to stand your ground,” she urged supporters Monday.
House Republicans are unlikely to pay much of a political price for taking the nation to the brink of fiscal chaos. Regardless of national polls, most House Republicans will run for re-election in safe, conservative districts more likely to applaud than jeer their actions.
In Senate races and swing districts, where independents have more of a say, they could be hurting their prospects.
Partisans heed the calling of such interests not only for votes, but for money. Groups keep score and insist they’ll challenge those who deviate from their orthodoxy. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson and others face primary challenges next year.
McConnell is still criticized for agreeing to a plan to rescue Wall Street in 2008. Simpson is being blasted for that vote, as well as his support of the New Year’s Eve compromise that imposed higher taxes on the wealthy and delayed automatic spending cuts for two months. Eighty-four other Republicans joined him.
For years, such positions were politically astute. McConnell, Simpson and others could cite strong conservative voting records, but an ability to bend so the system would work.
Veteran lawmakers remember the 1995-96 shutdown, and the notion that Republicans took a beating. Clinton saw his Gallup poll approval rating jump over 50 percent just after the shutdown ended; it never went below that number again. House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s image never recovered, and he was eventually pushed out of his job.
In some circles today, that conventional wisdom has shifted. Most members of Congress, and for that matter most constituents, don’t remember that shutdown, making new interpretations more accepted.
“A lot of people now say others learned the wrong lessons from 1996,” said Dan Holler of Heritage Action, which is pushing an Obamacare repeal. Republicans retained Senate and House control, he noted, and within two years the nation had a balanced budget.
The shutdown experience, says this view, emboldened Republicans. They went to the edge in 2011 and last year and wound up with significant spending cuts.
“That was a result of the showdown over the debt ceiling,” said Holler.
There are means to an endgame. One-party control is one antidote, but that doesn’t appear imminent. Republicans are expected to need a net gain of six seats next year to win Senate control, and Democrats now hold the most vulnerable seats up for election. Republicans are also expected to maintain their majority of the House, where they have a 233-200 edge.
The other way Washington calms down is for one side to score a clear win. Polls show the president gets the credit when the economy recovers, but Republicans could win support if, after the new health care law takes effect, more people dislike its impact.
“All this ends when someone gets blamed,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
At the moment, it’s not clear who that could be.