Earlier this morning, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate struck a deal to fund the government through January 15 and extend the debt ceiling to February 7. The Senate will essentially dictate the bill to the House, which will hopefully pass it and send it back to the Senate before we run out of borrowing authority tomorrow. Or Ted Cruz will scotch the whole thing. Or fractious House Republicans will refuse to pass anything, and the United States will resume its proud, constitutionally mandated position as a second-rate power. But for now, it looks like we have a deal.
On Tuesday the House Republican caucus broke out in a chorus of “Amazing Grace” which, as Ben “The Angel” Gabriel pointed out, is about a dude who gave up the slave trade to pursue Christian theology. It’s good the House GOP sees itself as the protagonist in a story of struggle and redemption, but it is not clear yet that it has been redeemed.
Certainly the struggle has been arduous. When they shut down the government two weeks ago, conservative Republicans were convinced that they could leverage their position to defund the Affordable Care Act. Get past the 3.5 metaphors that Cathleen Decker crams into the first two paragraphs of her story, and you’ll find that the GOP has suffered badly in the shutdown, even among Republicans. The party of Lincoln has expended a lot of political capital this October, and for what?
Obamacare is off the table. Even a tiny dose of intellectual honesty would have told the minority party that a second-term president would not undo his signature achievement, but conservative Republicans only apply realpolitik to their own ethics. When it comes to what Obama and his party might do, the last two weeks constitute a massive failure of Republican estimation. They thought they could ask for the moon, and now they’re grasping at a piece of cheese.
The cheese is denying insurance exchange subsidies to congresspeople and their staffers—the so-called Vitter Amendment. As a subject of Republican agreement, it’s kind of weird. Most congresspeople are millionaires, so they wouldn’t qualify for subsidies anyway. Their staffers, on the other hand, are generally young and poorly paid. Denying them subsides would make life harder for Congress itself, so it’s an odd thing for GOP reps to agree on.
On the other hand, it’s trending really well on Twitter. Because it’s popular with the kind of jerks who talk about politics on social media and unpopular with the majority of congresspeople, the Vitter Amendment seems like something Republicans can blame Democrats for not passing.
And so it is the shutdown in a nutshell: Republicans propose something they don’t want so they can blame Democrats when it doesn’t happen. The essence of the Vitter Amendment’s popularity is Americans’ hatred of Congress. When it doesn’t pass, half of Congress reasons, they can blame it on the other half. Likewise, when the government stops functioning and nearly throws the country into default, all Republicans need to do is manage the blame.
It’s funny because they screwed that part up. It’s sad because at no point in the process does anything positive happen—neither “positive” in the sense of “good for the country” nor in the sense of “defined by existence rather than negation.”
House Republicans did not shut down the government to pass some law they all loved; they did it to neutralize one they hated. Now that Obamacare is off the table, they’re not trying to win over public opinion by leading negotiations or offering some bold new strategy to reopen the government; they’re supporting an amendment that won’t pass so they can blame Democrats for not passing it.
It’s a totalizing strategy of politics by negation, and they’ve been doing it for over four years now. Opposing recent history has been a viable strategy thus far, because the country is changing and a lot of people are pissed. One of the ways the country has changed, though, is that Congress has lost its spirit of comity. People are pissed about that, too, and it’s not a problem that can be solved by channeling blame.
So what did we learn from our near miss with calamity? Nothing yet—calamity is still scheduled for tomorrow. But it’s evident that the Republican Party has run out of ideas, and the Democratic Party lacks the savvy and/or the seats to govern alone. Our elected representatives have very nearly failed us, and in risking all they have accomplished exactly nothing. But at least they’ve carefully protected their opportunities to do it again later.