If Congress does not pass a stopgap funding bill today, the federal government will shut down at midnight tonight. Conventional wisdom says that will probably happen. Once Ted Cruz (R–TX) finally stopped talking, the Senate rejected a House bill that funded the government but also defunded Obamacare, returning instead a “clean” continuing resolution with no Obamacare amendments. Beaten but unbowed, the House plans to pass another funding bill that keeps the government open but repeals the medical device tax and delays implementation of Obamacare for one year. The Senate will not pass that. As of this writing, it looks like the federal government will shut down.
The last time that happened was 1996. Pundits remember the Gingrich-era shutdown as one of the biggest mistakes the modern Republican Party ever made, although Newt would like to point out that the GOP won two House seats and only lost two Senate seats in that year’s election. That’s a small net gain, and they had only to halt the operation of the US government to do it. Still, some gutless portions of the American public question why, exactly, House Republicans would extort the rest of Washington to repeal a 2010 law that they have failed 40 times to overturn by legislative means.
Theoretically, the reason is that they hate the Affordable Care Act. In the media junket that preceded his self-aggrandizing filibuster of a law he supported, Cruz blamed Obamacare for stifling the recovery and inflicting suffering on “millions” of Americans. It hadn’t gone into effect yet, but whatever. He and his fellows in the very conservative wing of the GOP claim they are standing up for the will of the people, 46% of whom oppose Obamacare.
Only 37% of those people oppose the Affordable Care Act, which is probably a blog post of its own, but that number isn’t important now. The big, exciting measure of public opinion is that 80% of Americans polled said that threatening government shutdown is not an acceptable way to negotiate policy.
That number has been public since Wednesday, before the House passed its Obamacare-defunding continuing resolution. House Republicans knew their bill wouldn’t make it through the Senate, just as Cruz knew his 21-hour speech wasted valuable negotiating time that he would later lambast Harry Reid for squandering. They knew that four out of five Americans thought their plan to tie government funding to repealing Obamacare was unethical, and they went ahead with it anyway.
Why? Given what we know that conservative Republicans know, why would they keep passing bills that stand no chance of becoming law, publicly exploiting an unpopular tactic and driving the federal government toward an outcome nobody wants? Three explanations leap to mind:
- They actually believe that implementing the Affordable Care Act would be worse than shutting down the entire federal government.
- They want to shut down the federal government.
- They want to be seen opposing Obamacare and threatening to shut down the federal government.
Explanation (1) probably only covers Louie Gohmert. Explanation (2) is more robust, particularly among those Tea Party Republicans who sincerely regard themselves as coming to Washington to prosecute a revolutionary change in American government. If you believe that most of contemporary federal policy is unconstitutional, you probably don’t object to shutting off the tap for a few weeks. Libertarian Republicans like Ron Paul likely fall into this camp.
But Tea Party Republicans are not all libertarians. Many of them, like Steve King (R–IA) and terrifying simulacrum Michele Bachmann, reached Congress by being more conservative than their Republican primary competitors on pretty much every issue. These members of the House come from districts so reliably red that they are more concerned with Republican Party primaries than with the general election. And what better way to prove your opposition to Obama—still the Tea Party’s defining policy position—than to scotch the entire United States government to thwart the policy that bears his name?
Explanation (3) is most compelling for this faction of the Republican Party. It explains why they would be willing to violate a two-century tradition of comity in order to pursue a course of action wildly unpopular with the American people. They’re not playing to the American people. They’re playing to the 16% of Americans who say that threatening a government shutdown is an acceptable way to negotiate government policy—almost all of whom are comprised in the 22% who support the Tea Party.
Whether for ideological or political reasons, Cruz, Gohmert, et al are governing for that 22%. They are governing in the world of talk radio, where Washington is synonymous with trouble anyway, and Obamacare must be stopped at any cost. They are not concerned with the national Republican Party, because they only need to win their districts. I am told there is still a responsible wing of the GOP that is worried about what the American people think. It has 11 hours left in which to govern.