By Nicole Hemmer
The US federal government shutdown comes nearly three years after Republicans, sweeping the 2010 midterm elections on the strength of an organised and outraged Tea Party, took control of the House of Representatives.
They have been busily monkey-wrenching the government ever since.
Lacking control of the Senate or the White House, House Republicans are limited to leveraging crises in order to get what they want. And they've done so with relish. From the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 which cost the US its AAA credit rating to the fiscal cliff crisis of 2012 to the current government shutdown, House Republicans have demonstrated that any deadline can be turned into a debacle.
And each debacle yields fresh new horrors. The debt-ceiling crisis gave birth to sequestration, an austerity plan purposefully designed to be so inane that both Republicans and Democrats would have to compromise.
To avert sequestration, Democrats — labouring under the outmoded belief that compromise means "we give up something, you give up something" — offered a bill that balanced spending cuts with tax increases. Republicans responded with a bill that restored the defence budget by slashing food stamps, healthcare, and funds for consumer protection and Wall Street reform. In other words: we give up nothing, you give up everything. This is the definition of compromise Republicans have used since 2010.
The current shutdown showdown offers more of the same. Perhaps the most important thing to note about the standoff is that Democrats have already caved on the budget. In an effort to forestall a government shutdown, Democrats lopped $US70 billion off their proposed 2014 budget, a 6.6% reduction.
Having already won the budget battle, House Republicans then added a rider defunding the Affordable Care Act. It was a poisoned amendment: Democrats would never vote to undo the central legislation of the Obama administration, and the president would never sign it into law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat who had just capitulated on spending levels to avert a shutdown, responded in frustration, "They won't take yes for an answer."
Republicans wouldn't take yes for an answer because they weren't looking for ways to avoid a government shutdown. The Tea Party bloc that is calling the shots doesn't fear shuttered agencies or defaulted debts. They came to Washington not to legislate but to level, not to rule but to raze. The 2011–12 Congress was one of the least productive (and least popular) in the modern era, passing little significant legislation.
So what have they been up to? In the House, Republicans have spent their time endlessly protesting the Affordable Care Act. Despite Obama's re-election and the Supreme Court's sanction of the act, House Republicans have voted to repeal it 41 times, accounting for about 15% of their time in session. Senate Republicans, stuck in the minority, have been busy blocking legislation, using the procedural filibuster twice as often as Democrats did when they were in the minority.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist once said that he didn't want to abolish government, he just wanted to shrink it down to the size where he could drown it in a bathtub. Well, this is what the drowning looks like.
As unpopular as the Republican strategy is, it may not spell defeat for the GOP. Thanks to redistricting, most House Republicans hail from safe districts. Thus the biggest threat to any representative's re-election is a primary challenge from the right. Likewise, the most vulnerable Senate seats in 2014 are Democratic. So for structural reasons, it's possible Republicans will enter the 2014 midterms badly damaged and yet still control the House — possibly even the Senate.
Win or lose in 2014, Tea Party Republicans bear a great deal of responsibility for the damage they've wrought. But so do the people who put them in power. Conservatives should demand leaders who balance principle with pragmatism, who place the national interest above their own. And all Americans should advocate for reforms that will prevent government-by-extortion, regardless of the party in power. By reforming the filibuster, redrawing districts for fairer representation, and creating automatic renewals for the debt-ceiling and the annual budget, Americans can close this bizarre chapter in their history.
But first they need to re-open their government. And that may take a while.
This article was originally published at The Australian