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The Sausage Factory

The Charge of the Right Brigade: Shutting Down the Government over Obamacare

Flash’d all their sabres bare,


Flash’d as they turn’d in air,


Sabring the gunners there,


Charging an army, while


All the world wonder’d:


Plunged in the battery-smoke


Right thro’ the line they broke;


Cossack and Russian


Reel’d from the sabre stroke


Shatter’d and sunder’d.


Then they rode back, but not


Not the six hundred.

From “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson

 

Some conservatives, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and others, are advocating that the House of Representatives, with its Republican majority, pass a continuing resolution that defunds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (more commonly known as Obamacare) while funding the rest of the government.  Mysteriously, they seem to believe that the Democratic-controlled Senate, and the President after whom the healthcare act is named, will agree with them and in one fell swoop eliminate Obamacare.  The practical impossibility of defunding Obamacare through a continuing resolution is so apparent that they can’t seriously believe that it stands a chance of passing. However, perhaps the right wing of the Republican Party believes it stands to gain even by such a loss, but this will cost them in the long run.

Let’s review some of the basics before examining this legislative strategy.

First of all, the strategy assumes that the Congress and the President will fail to agree on any of the appropriations bills required to be passed by the beginning of the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1.  This is not a bad assumption given the fact that the Congress has not completed the budget process on schedule since 1997.  We have written about this subject at great length, and you might want to review some of our posts here.

Under the Constitution, the Executive Branch cannot spend money unless Congress has appropriated it.  So if Congress fails to pass the appropriation bills on time, the agencies that have not been funded must close.  Congress can avoid shutting down the government by passing a continuing resolution (CR) that temporarily funds the government, usually at existing levels, until the appropriations bills can be passed.  Like any other law, for a CR to go into effect, both Chambers must pass identical bills, and the President must sign it.

Congress is allowed, however, to add conditions to the CR. In the past, the Congress has allowed a percentage increase in the amount agencies can spend. It can also do the opposite – pass a continuing resolution that funds the government at the prior fiscal year levels, minus one percent in all, or some, agencies.  Usually, however, the Congress has a gun to its head and passes a CR extending funding at the current levels, since failure to do so would require the government to shut up shop. Although they are kicking the proverbial can down the road by agreeing to a CR, leaders of both parties usually vow to deal with the budget at a future time, giving the American people something to look forward to: another round of shutdown threats and another last-minute agreement.

What is the actual effect of a government shutdown?  Typically “non-essential” personnel are told not to report to work – and yes, there are actually essential federal employees.  They include the military, healthcare workers, Secret Service and FBI agents to name a few.  However, while these essential employees come to work, they would not get paid for their work until the funding impasse is resolved.

Not surprisingly, only once has there been a sustained shutdown of the Federal government, and that shutdown only affected three agencies.  In 1995 and 1996, as a result of the 1994 election that put Republicans in control of both Chambers of Congress for the first time in 44 years, a showdown occurred between the Congress, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, and President Bill Clinton.  Republicans sent a CR to the President mandating a balanced budget in seven years (they actually passed one just two years later) and cutting spending.  However, the President would not accept their cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education and environmental protection, so he vetoed the CR, and a government shutdown ensued.  Clinton furloughed federal workers for 5 days in November 1995 and for 23 days from December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996. It is important to note that this government shut down only affected a portion of the Federal government. A CNN report from the time states that Departments of the Interior, State, Justice, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Human Development, Labor, and Veterans Affairs, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA, were affected. During the first episode, about 800,000 workers were furloughed, and in the second, only 260,000 (or about 13 percent of the government workforce) were.  The public turned against the Republicans and boosted the sagging popularity of President Clinton, who was facing a difficult reelection fight in 1996.

Fast forward to 2013.  Senator Cruz and others are advocating that the House Republicans pass a CR with the condition that all of the funding for Obamacare be eliminated.  If the Democratic-controlled Senate were to agree and the President were to sign such a bill, they would accomplish, through a budgetary sleight of hand, a one year repeal of the unpopular health care law.  Pick whatever metaphor you like, but this scenario will happen when pigs fly over the icebergs in Hell.  Obviously, Harry Reid is not going to allow the Senate to pass such a bill, and the President is not going to sign the repeal of what he considers his most important accomplishment.  If the Republican House were to pass such a CR, and insist on it, the government would shutdown on October 1, 2013.  Only this time, every agency funded by appropriations legislation would cease non-essential activities.

When contemplating a shutdown, there are two basic responses from the Republican Party. The Republican 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney succinctly offered one:

Emotion is understandably at play in Washington among some of our fellow Republicans. I badly want Obamacare to go away, and stripping it of funds has appeal. But we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government. What would come next when soldiers aren’t paid, when seniors fear for their Medicare and Social Security, and when the FBI is off duty? I’m afraid that in the final analysis, Obamacare would get its funding, our party would suffer in the next elections, and the people of the nation would not be happy.

Eric Erickson, the founder of the popular blog RedState.com, offered an opposing opinion:

I believe this is a fight worth having and I understand most of my friends do not and think it a suicide mission. As for me, I think defunding Obamacare is a hill worth dying on. I know I am in the minority among my friends, but I am convinced this fight must be had after years of Republican Leaders telling us they’d do anything and everything to repeal Obamacare.

And Obamacare defunders do seem to be doing anything they can to make their case.  They have even produced ads for liberal MSNBC advocating their position. There is probably no audience less responsive to their message than MSNBC.

But is the end goal like the Charge of the Light Brigade, where the gallant cavalry gloriously displayed unsurpassed courage, honor and bravery, only to die in a pointless and accidental charge?

The result of a shutdown would be predictable.  As in 1995 – the public’s anger at Washington’s inability to govern the nation would rise until a compromise was arrived at – likely meaning an embarrassing retreat by House Republicans.  While the House of Representatives majority clearly opposes Obamacare – after all it has voted to repeal the program some 40 times – wiser heads in the Republican leadership are likely to prevent a shutdown, much to the chagrin of the Democrats, who would see such a crisis as an opportunity to prevent a likely Republican takeover of the Senate in 2014, and an opening for returning the gavel to Nancy Pelosi in the House. Without a doubt, the most immediate consequences would be negative.

So why would these strategists try to force the House Republicans into what would looks like political suicide?  As smart people, they know this is a fight they will not win.  What is it they hope to accomplish?  Perhaps some of the proponents see the opportunity for long-term political gain.

It might be that these individuals are hoping that the Republican electorate’s anger at the prospect of Obamacare can be directed against those Republicans who oppose their tactics, creating primary campaigns against incumbents and eventually recreating the party in their own image.  Sitting Senators usually do not go around saying they want to reshape their party, but there is enough evidence to suggest that they would be happy if that happened.

On his own Twitter account, Senator Cruz wrote, “Any elected official who casts a vote for this continuing resolution that funds Obamacare is affirmatively voting to fund Obamacare”. He also told the National Review, American conservatism’s most prominent publication, that Republicans who disagree with him have Clinton post-traumatic-stress-syndrome — they’re “haunted by ghosts of shutdowns past.”

A political action committee founded by former Senator Jim DeMint, now President of the Heritage Foundation, is threatening, according to National Review, to bankroll Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s primary opponent.

While targeting more establishment Republicans and fomenting primary challenges could possibly result in losing control of the House, these government-shutdown proponents would tell you that there is little difference between what they call RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and the Democrats anyway.  As Erickson said at RedState.com, “The best chance we, as conservative activists have, is to deliver the third party from within by picking off Republican establishment leaders in primaries. From Matt Bevin to Milton Wolf to Larry Rhoden to Rob Maness to so many others, it is time to disrupt the GOP in a last ditch effort to save it from itself.”

President Obama, who has been frustrated at his attempts for higher taxes, greater investment (spending), more regulations and other initiatives, would likely strongly disagree, so don’t look for him to lift a hand to help the more establishment conservative Republicans in their civil war with their more extreme brethren.  For the President, control of the House by Speaker Pelosi is essential for the final two years of his Presidency.

Legislative tactics, while seemingly boring to laymen, can have historic implications.  In the early 1917, seven progressive Republicans crossed the aisle and elected a Democratic Speaker, even though the Republicans had won a plurality of House seats at the ballot box. Not long ago, a handful of Southern Democrats, a distinct minority within their own party by the end of the 1950s, used legislative tactics to block civil rights legislation from coming to the floor of the House for more than a decade.  Today, a handful of Republicans are ready to rebuild the Republican brand in their own image, even if they pull down their party’s House majority in the process. Many of them look to the 1964 presidential candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater – arguing that while 1964 was an electoral disaster, it helped create the ideological foundations for the modern conservative movement that resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan 16 years later. Maybe so, but not many Republicans are willing to wait until 2032 to find out.

Some worry that this fight is weakening the Republican Party as it gets ready for the next round of the budget debate. The second round of the sequester cuts are scheduled to go into effect on October 1, the debt limit needs to be extended again, and no progress has been made on budget negotiations between the House and the Senate.  A possible deal to reduce the sequester cuts in exchange for entitlement reform is on the table, but not likely to be successful in the current environment. The government could well shut down anyway and the debt limit could be breached, even without the “double-dog dare you” tactics of a handful of hard-line elected officials.   One thing is for certain, if the supporters of a government shutdown miscalculate, the only debate in the next Congress will be how much Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid will increase spending and taxes. But no matter: Since the government shutdown is a hill they are willing to die on in this Congress, they might not be around the Hill in the next.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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