One of the stupidest places in the world. Image via Flickr user David
At midnight last night, the federal government shut down because Congress couldn’t get its shit together. Explaining that to people from other countries, or Americans who don’t pay attention to the daily grinding and wailing from Washington, DC, is very difficult – when you talk about the shutdown, it’s hard to avoid sounding like a small child trying to communicate the rules of a game that you and your friends invented as you went along. 'Wait,' you realise as you’re launching into an explanation of Ted Cruz’s filibuster, 'none of this really makes sense, does it?'
To recap: Republicans hate Obamacare. Some of them – the hard right, perpetually angry Tea Party types who are mostly in the House of Representatives – hate it so much that they’re refusing to pass a routine continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government’s normal operations unless Obamacare isn’t funded. Since Republicans control the House (and there are enough in the defund-Obamacare caucus for their opinions to really count – we'll get to that), they can do this if they want. Yesterday, House Republicans continued to pass bills that dismantled parts of Obamacare even though they had no chance of passing the Senate or getting signed by president Obama.
This is stupid on a purely tactical level – if the government shuts down because Tea Party Republicans refused to budge on Obamacare, everyone will blame the GOP. What’s more, everyone knows this, so some Republicans, like Senator Tom Coburn, are all, “This is stupid, everyone knows that this is a bad idea and that Republicans will eventually give in and pass a CR that includes funding for Obamacare. You guys are idiots.” The fact that the shutdown strategy is getting so much criticism from people on the right only makes it look worse and less defensible. Democrats, comfortable in the knowledge that this is mostly about Republicans yelling at other Republicans, can stand aside and wait for the opposition to get itself together and vote through a "clean" CR, one that leaves Obamacare alone.
The Tea Party’s shutdown strategy is stupid from a nonpartisan economic perspective too. Markets fell yesterday as people worried about not only the shutdown, but negotiations over the debt ceiling, which needs to get raised or the US will eventually stop being able to pay their creditors. When the government of the richest country in the world can’t agree on things like, “Yes, we should continue to pay for garbage collection in the nation’s capital,” that looks bad to investors.
By the way, it’s stupid to call this thing a “shutdown”. The terms people use sound bad, but not a whole lot will really be shutting down. The Postal Service is still delivering mail, the military is still dropping bombs and whatnot, Social Security and Medicare payments are getting sent out, prisons are still open, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be mostly OK in the short term and (ironically) Obamacare will now start to be implemented bit by bit. The shutdown largely effects the “nonessential” functions of the government – national parks will close, NASA will cease operations, gun permits won’t be issued, the “panda cam” at the National Zoo will go dark. This is a bad situation for DC, where the federal government provides basic services like trash collection, and for the 800,000-odd federal employees who will be furloughed and may or may not get back-pay for their forced vacations, but it’s more like a slowdown than a shutdown.
Because the shutdown is merely "bad" rather than "catastrophic", some conservatives were already making the “shutdown won’t be that bad!” argument yesterday. Unsurprisingly, it went to a dark, stupid place rather quickly:
Ha ha. But casually hateful joking aside, actually most House Republicans really, really want to avoid a shutdown – a Washington Examiner article from yesterday estimated that 175 out of 233 GOP representatives are eager to avoid a shutdown (they’re not that stupid). If Boehner wanted to, he could easily pass a clean CR if he compromised enough to bring some Democrats onboard. He doesn’t want to, theorised the Washington Post’s political blog, because “if he gives in and/or is perceived by cast-iron conservatives as giving in, his speakership is all but over… If he cuts a deal – literally, any deal – Boehner is effectively signing his own political death certificate (or damn close).”
Boehner is in that spot because the electoral math in many Republican districts is pretty dang stupid itself. The pro-shutdown, anti-Obamacare congressmen represent places that are whiter, more conservative and more distant from major cities than most of America – the 30 or so hardliners behind the shutdown may seem like nuts from an Aaron Sorkin script, but they’re just doing what their talk-radio-listening, Obama-hating constituents want.
These ultraconservative districts are the result of a long-term GOP plan to win state legislatures, then use that power to redraw maps and create reliable Republican seats. (Democrats aren’t strangers to partisan gerrymandering either, but they’ve lately been less successful at winning the necessary local elections.) The success of this redistricting means that fewer House Republicans need to worry about Democrats unseating them, but they do need to worry about conservatives challenging them from the right in primaries – which in turn presumably makes them angrier and more determined to amp up the anti-Obama, down-with-the-government rhetoric. It’s an atmosphere that rewards blind partisanship and brinksmanship with votes, which seems like a stupid way to run a democracy. It's sort of funny – establishment Republicans like Karl Rove have criticised the shutdown strategy, but Rove himself was an architect of the scheme to redraw district maps to create safe conservative seats that proved to be fertile ground for the uncontrollable Tea Partiers. Seems kind of stupid in retrospect, doesn’t it Karl?
It’s stupid that a divided, hopelessly inefficient Congress has to approve routine spending every couple of months; it’s stupid that that Congress can get held up by a few dozen hardliners who represent an angry minority and can get automatically reelected thanks to gerrymandering; it’s stupid that something so self-evidently stupid as the shutdown is happening because a few politicians have no problem putting a dent in the economy and closing national parks to prove something to their stupid fucking constituents. As the negotiations progressed (or failed to), journalists on Capitol Hill reported that members of Congress had smelled like booze. Can you blame them? If my job was that stupid, I’d be drinking, too.
Follow Harry on Twitter: @HCheadle
More on America’s stupid government: