Yeah, I’m writing to you. Not to the pundits or the politicians (not that they’d read this anyway), but you: the everyday Joe (or Jane) that considers themselves a Republican, who reads these headlines about the government shutting down and wonders how it got here and whether or not the people you most agree with are actually at fault here. This post is a long one, but hopefully it’s a helpful one.
But first let me say that, on a grand scale, I’m with you politically. I consider myself a center-right pragmatist. I think the government should be dedicated to very few things, the private sector should be utilized whenever possible, and that States–rather than the federal government–are the greatest laboratories for democracy and the greatest vehicles of government to their people.
But there’s a bigger context to this showdown that I fear is getting lost in all the noise. Everyone seems to be focusing on a series of events in the past month or so that led to this, but it actually goes back a little further than that.
The main issue comes down to the 2014 budget for the government. In most places (including many States, like Pennsylvania, where I’m at) the budget process works like this: every major player (mainly the Executive and Legislative ones) comes up with a separate budget that represents their personal interests and priorities and then the groups get together and spend time reconciling the two or three different budgets into a single one that finally gets passed. That’s why no one should freak out when they see any one group put out their budget. It’s really just a proposal that amounts to an extremist wishlist for all sides involved. The hard edges usually get carved out in those negotiations.
In the federal government, the Senate got into a bad habit. For the past few years, they wouldn’t put out their own budget proposal. Instead, they relied on a law called the Budget Control Act that set limits on spending and such, but didn’t actually spell out how the money would be used. So the Senate passed that law and said “There! We have passed a budget-like thing. That’s good enough, right?” This was convenient because it allowed them to get work done without having to put their priorities out there for the world to see.
And so the President would put a budget out, the House would as well, and then the Senate would just show up for the negotiating process. But this changed. Earlier this year, after months of Republicans beating up on the Senate Democrats for not passing a budget, the Democrats said they would. Right after that, the House negotiated with President Obama over raising the debt-ceiling and they added a section that would force the Senate to pass that budget or they wouldn’t get paychecks. Naturally, Democrats said “we already said we would!” and Republicans said “only because we made you!” (Collective eye-roll ensues.)
And lo and behold, in March, the Senate passed a real, actual budget!
Now here’s where things start getting odd. The White House had released a budget. The House had. And now the Senate had. Now it was time for those conferences to begin where they try and reconcile and negotiate three budgets into one. The federal fiscal year runs from October of one year to the September of the next, and all the groups involved usually use those precious months from “budget season” in early Spring to “new budget time” in September finishing those negotiations and passing a budget in time for October 1st.
And yet, for some reason that I honestly don’t know, House Republicans have refused to come up with their chosen people to bring to these budget negotiating conferences. And so this normal, mundane, budgetary process has been stalled since March, leaving us with no single budget to pass for 2014. If I had to guess, I’d say Republicans were stalling so that we could get to this very point of shutdown and they could have “leverage”.
And so now we come to some really important points about this situation leading to this government shutdown:
They are not arguing over a budget. Most people probably know that the Senate has passed a bill that they keep sending to the House, where they then load it up with some amendments and send back. The Senate votes that down, strips out the amendments and sends it back. What they are bouncing back and forth is not a budget. It’s a “Continuing Resolution” which, in this case, is just a six-week extension of the current 2013 budget. That’s right. This is happening over just six-weeks of spending that the Senate offered to try and give them all time to do those negotiations and work out the full 2014 budget.
The negotiating conferences that the Republicans are theatrically doing now are not the same as what they’ve been stalling. The Republicans are now saying that they are trying to negotiate but the Democrats are refusing. That’s not quite true. These current conferences the Republicans are doing are just to talk about the specifics of the six-week plan, not the full, actual budget. Democrats have continued to say that they are willing–this very day– to get together with Republicans to negotiate the full 2014 budget, but they’re not going to talk about a mere six week delay of those conferences while there is a shutdown. They’re saying “get the government running again by passing the six-week plan and then let’s use that time to negotiate and compromise on the real budget.”
Why have they been talking about ObamaCare? Well, for one, now that the deficit is shrinking more rapidly than it has since WWII, fighting the Affordable Care Act is the main thing that Republicans can now rally around and really put their energy towards (yes, I know deficits are projected to go back up 15-20 years from now, but that’s another post for another day). And so, they would say that they are using their Constitutional authority to use the legal methods at their disposal to accomplish the desires of their constituents.
But (in my opinion) this isn’t really about doing what the American people want. Yes, recent polls have shown ObamaCare extremely unpopular right now. But even when the law was passed, people overwhelmingly didn’t want “ObamaCare” per se, but if you took polls asking people about how they felt about the specific things in the law itself, they were hugely popular. The same is still true today (as Jimmy Kimmel and others have pointed out). And so, it seems that people’s dislike of the law is more of a PR failure rather than a policy one. And, as it’s implementation has become closer, more and more Conservative groups have been on an intense campaigns to further misunderstand and make people dislike the idea of ObamaCare, even if they don’t know what’s in it, including this creepy ad:
And either way, no matter how unpopular ObamaCare has been, Americans were over 90% in support of the background check gun reform law, and Republicans overwhelmingly voted against that. So… yeah, it’s hard to hear the whole “we’re doing the will of the people thing”.
Relatedly, if the six-week extension were brought up in the House today, it would pass. That’s right. It’s not the case that the House of Representatives keeps voting down what the Senate is sending them. Rather, the Speaker of the House, John Beohner, is able to add amendments himself and kick it back to the Senate without the House ever voting on it. There are easily enough votes for this thing to pass, but the Speaker is not bringing this up for a vote because he made a promise a while ago that he would never bring anything up for a vote unless a majority of Republicans wanted it.
And so, even if the majority of America’s elected Representatives wanted something to pass, if a majority of his party doesn’t like it, the Speaker won’t let the People have their say through their Representatives. So yeah, again…. about that whole “just doing the will of the people” thing.
This also means that this isn’t really a “showdown” between Republicans and Democrats. As has been eloquently stated, the main conflict here is within the Republican party itself. That’s where the showdown is (and the media has been failing us in this dynamic of its reporting). If the Speaker believed he had that majority Republican vote, he’d love to do it and end this shutdown. but the Republican Party of today is something it’s never been before.
This is not “normal negotiation”; this is completely unprecedented in our nation’s history. A friend on Facebook commented on a status of mine (that was reactive and that I shouldn’t have put up) saying something like, “the Republicans have been watering down their proposals and amendments and the Democrats won’t negotiate! They’re saying it’s their way or the highway. The Republicans are being flexible–it’s the Senate that’s holding the nation hostage.”
The problem with that is this: the Democrats are not refusing to talk about and negotiate ObamaCare items. The Republicans even proposed a repeal of a tax in ObamaCare that even Democrats hate and would have loved to have gotten rid of, and yet they still voted it down. Why? Because ObamaCare should have nothing to do with the budget talks. This six-week extension should only be used for negotiating the 2014 budget. Not to talk about non-budgetary items.
To my knowledge (and please, correct me if I’m wrong), this is unprecedented in our history to use budget matters as a negotiating tactic with items completely unrelated to the budget. I know other shutdowns (and threats of one) have been done to protest items in the budget (like Medicaid funding for abortions in the 70s, for example), or maybe even things still in the middle of the legislative process, but not against an already enacted, established law. Am I right on that?
Even if you hate ObamaCare (and yes, even the President admits it needs major adjustments), this is not the time and place to have that fight. But what if you feel passionately enough against ObamaCare that you think this is one of those few items in our history that it is worth going through all this pain and trouble to fight?
Republicans should not want to win this fight. Seriously. You don’t want to do this. Whatever happens now will set the new precedent by which every party will govern in our Congress. Honestly, if Democrats were doing this stuff–even for something I’d agree with–I would be against this. This is not a partisan thing for me.
Republican friend, I’m assuming you think things would be better in this country if your party were in the majority in both chambers of Congress (and ideally the Presidency). Let’s say you achieve that goal. Do you want Democrats threatening the financial stability and functioning of our country to try and get you to repeal some piece of legislation you really like? Or what if you get in power and repeal ObamaCare, what would stop Democrats from using these tactics to try and get it reinstated?
Because, guess what? I have little faith that if this precedent is set, the Democrats won’t try and take advantage of it the same way. Republican friend, here’s my plea: Republicans should bring up laws, fight for them in the public realm, debate them, and vote on these laws. It’s that simple. Our system has plenty of legitimate places to fight these fights. I know this may seem like the last ditch effort you can have to “save the country from ObamaCare”. But I’m telling you: if this law is as terrible as Republicans say, then we’ll have time to adjust, repeal, and replace.
But by attaching this stuff to the budgetary (and debt-limit) process, I fear you are setting yourself up to lose the public, lose elections, and lose all good faith with which you can legitimately govern and negotiate in the proper realms for negotiation–like passing the 2014 budget. Which is what we need to be doing right now.
In conclusion, let’s have these fights. Let them be loud and intense and messy. There are legitimate policy differences here that deserve a hearing. But please, can we not let them become crises like this? Republican friend, please support your Representatives ending this shutdown and bringing the bill up for a vote.
If there’s the slightest chance that this post may have convinced you that Republicans are not going about this legitimate policy disagreement in the best way, could I encourage you to find your representative and, if they are a Republican (mine is not), could you call or email them asking them to vote for this clean, amendment-free Continuing Resolution for the next six-weeks so they can create the 2014 budget? While you’re at it, could you ask them to vote for the debt-ceiling increase as well? Thanks.