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Friday, September 13, 2013

Crazy pills: the politics of government shutdown and federal default

Posted by on Fri, Sep 13, 2013 at 10:52 AM

A shutdown of the federal government is looming, with the end of the fiscal year coming at the end of this month and no hope for a deal in sight (it might seem like that's plenty of time, but you have to factor in the strict adherence to vacation schedules of the U.S. Congress — there's only five scheduled legislative days left before September 30). The Republican House leadership tried to pass a continuing resolution that would lock in the sequestration cuts on domestic spending while  increasing defense spending but didn't have the votes because OBAMACARE TRAINWRECK REPEAL NOW!!! This has led the Republican establishment into what appears to be a terrible spot, and created some serious frustration with the Tea Party diehards. Speaker John Boehner openly told reporters that he had no idea how to resolve the dispute. “Do you have an idea?" he asked. "They’ll just shoot it down anyway.” One GOP aide, when asked for comment by BuzzFeed's Kate Nocera, simply sent along the "Crazy Pills" video below: 


The Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes this morning that the root of the problem for the GOP is the base's rabid hatred of Obamacare. Though the law itself still doesn't fare well in polls, the Tea Party's hysteria around it has turned into a political advantage for Democrats: 

Conservatives are refusing to fund the government if that funding includes the money intended for the Affordable Care Act. So Obamacare might lead the GOP to force an unnecessary and unpopular government shutdown — one that even most members of their party don't support.

And after the government-funding deadline, of course, comes the debt ceiling. There, Republican leadership is arguing that the deal should be a year of debt-ceiling increase for a year of Obamacare delay. The Obama administration obviously won't go for that — in fact, they say they won't negotiate over the debt ceiling at all — so GOP leaders will need to find a way out of that promise.

But what if they can't manage that legislative two-step? What if they actually cause a debt ceiling breach, and take the blame for the resulting economic chaos, and the permanently higher borrowing costs?

The GOP's strategy for ending Obamacare has gone from "repeal-and-replace" to "shutdown-and-default." That's a disaster for their party — and the leadership knows it. Obamacare has begun working politically for the Democrats, but not in a way that anybody ever expected.

This dynamic helps explain the rhetorical gymnastics from Rep. Tom Cotton and Rep. Tim Griffin around the question of whether they're willing to shut down the government over Obamacare. On the one hand, they need to maintain their anti-Obamacare cred for the Tea Party base. On the other hand, they don't particularly want to be aligned with a hideously unpopular government shutdown. A lot of House Republicans just don't care because they're in districts in which the OBAMACARE TRAINWRECK REPEAL NOW message is such political gold that driving the country off a cliff in a futile effort to stop the ACA is viewed as a righteous course. But Cotton is in a tough Senate race in which his greatest vulnerability is probably the "crazy pills" rep. If Griffin gets a decent challenger, his race could plausibly be competitive. These are the sorts of winnable races that could be lost if Republicans become associated with a government shutdown or, even worse, a debt default (the debt ceiling will likely be reached some time in late October). 

I'm focusing here on the politics, but there are real implications for the economy in all this, and they're not good. Shutting down the government would be bad. Defaulting on the nation's debts could potentially be an epic catastrophe. Hopefully Cotton, Griffin, and company will lay off the crazy pills long enough to strike a deal. 

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