Monday, September 30, 2013

Crimes at midnight:
The shutdown and the impact

The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles.
                    — Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan

SEVENTEEN YEARS after the last major sighting of locusts on the eastern seaboard of the United States, seventeen years after the last attempt at a right-wing coup d’extorsion on Capitol Hill, the Republicans of the House of Representatives have swarmed the machinery of American government, forcing the shutdown of the world’s brightest constitutional democracy and pre-eminent economic power, because that party couldn’t extort concessions from a Democratic president with the stones to tell them the United States wouldn’t be held hostage to terrorists of the congressional kind.

After a day of furious ping-pong between the House and the United States Senate — exchanging the same continuing resolution to fund the U.S. government, with amendments by the Republican House stripped out by the Democratic Senate — the House Republicans were forced to accept the fact that President Obama wouldn’t blink on any language in the bill that changed, compromised or chipped away at the integrity of the Affordable Care Act. Including its start date, Tuesday, Oct. 1.

Like the deeply cynical strategy employed during the Vietnam War — when one U.S. officer told Peter Arnett it was necessary to destroy a town in order to save it — the House Republicans have decided on a scorched-earth policy that threatens Americans across the board.

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Effective as of 12:01 a.m., East Coast time, about 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed from their jobs. Federal home loans will be suspended. WIC food programs indispensable for young mothers and children, may be endangered. Museums in D.C. are closed. Veterans centers will be shuttered. The Commerce, Energy and Labor Departments are down; so is the Environmental Protection Agency. National monuments will be closed  across the country.

Those monuments are staffed by members of the National Park Service; they’ll also be furloughed. That’s why national parks will be closed, including Yosemite National Park, celebrating its 123rd anniversary on Tuesday. The same date that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, another agency to be idled by the shutdown, began its work in 1958.

And this domestic pain will resonate uncertainty to the financial markets around the world. The brinksmanship exhibited by the Republicans — forcing Obama and Democrats into what a Current TV commentator once called “playing chicken with nihilists” — is expected to have a big impact on U.S. and global stock markets, could stall the domestic recovery that’s just kicking in and do damage to the world economy as well. In the current scenario, the inmates not only run the asylum of the House of Representatives; they’re threatening to burn down the asylum, and the town and country too.

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PRESIDENT OBAMA wasn’t bullshittin’ this time. He made that much clear in a brief address to reporters at the White House, hours before the deal went down. “[O]ne faction of one party in one house of Congress in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election,” he said.

And the strength of the president’s position was shown in the final hours. As the continuing resolution went from its clean condition in the Senate to being larded by the House with a last-minute GOP wish list of add-ons and tweaks, the special requests got more and more unlikely, and more and more indicative of a fishing expedition, an exercise in parliamentary games.

There’s evidence that the House Republican Conference was never serious about even trying to head off a government shutdown. Video of House Republicans emerging from a closed-door meeting on Saturday makes it clear. A smiling, high-fiving, thumbs-up ebullience is obvious.

The mood of House Republicans, variously characterized in news reports as “giddy” and “ecstatic,” puts the lie to the notion of those lawmakers having a grasp of a government shutdown as a harsh, grimly necessary undertaking — something done reluctantly, with an understanding of the pain it would inflict on ordinary Americans beyond the Beltway.

For them, a shutdown was cause for celebration. For them, this was never about governing. It was always about Gotterdammerung. The twilight of Democratic power is something that House Republicans have been planning since at least the 2010 midterm election.

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There’s blame enough to go around among those in the Republican leadership. But for first among equals, you gotta go with John Boehner, the ostensible Speaker of the House of Representatives, who refused to introduce the clean funding bill to the full House for a probable passage, and whose tenure in that position gets more and more tragically Shakespearean all the time.

Courses of responsible constitutional action couldn’t get much clearer than they were for Boehner over the last few days. He could reject the blackmail tactics of his caucus and act as the Speaker’s expected to act on behalf of the nation he represents, or he could knuckle under to the Calhounist nullifiers in his party, walk away from the responsibility that comes with being third in line of succession to the presidency, and cement his growing reputation as the most willfully invertebrate, ideologically coercible House Speaker in modern American history.

Boehner, who already made Newt Gingrich look like Sam Rayburn by comparison, took the easy way out on Monday. The rest is current events, and the first shutdown of the U.S. government since 1995-96. When Gingrich was speaker.

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SEN. RICHARD DURBIN of Illinois, a usually circumspect and even amiable presence in the Senate, let Speakerphone Boehner (and the Tea Party faction that has his convictions in a vise) have it in uncharacteristically blunt terms.

Before the deadline, Durbin called on Boehner and the GOP to “step up and accept their responsibility to govern, and let it start with the Speaker. I understand his plight. It’s very obvious to the world: He has a willful group within his caucus.

“One Republican House member said to me, ‘We aren’t dealing with two parties in the House, we’re dealing with three: two different Republican parties and the Democratic party, and most of our caucuses,’ he said, ‘are a fight between the two versions and factions of the Republican party.’ That’s what he’s up against.”

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On MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes,” Matt Welch of Reason Magazine had one perspective on what this means for the divided Republican identity, what it really got them and where this may be headed. “What did the Republicans give themselves in terms of leverage on this deal, over time?” Welsh asked rhetorically on Monday.

“Did they spend the last two months trying to bargain for and fight for something that was winnable? They did not. They tried to fight over defunding Obamacare, which was never winnable arithmetically.”

For Welch, then, this whole exercise has been about “giving voice to people who want to express their frustration. It’s not necessarily governance, it’s more of a cathartic scream” —

Check that, Welch, it’s not governance at all, it’s nothing but a cathartic scream, which is what and all the Tea Party, root and branch, has been from the beginning —

“and that cathartic scream will take the form of shutting down the government for a couple of hours ... and then it’ll all be over and we’ll be talking about the debt ceiling.”

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THE SENATE left after its last vote of the day and won’t reconvene until 9 or so on Tuesday morning. So much for “a couple of hours.” But the House Republicans’ position is ultimately indefensible, and they know that already; that suggests a resolution to this impasse sooner rather than later. We may find out that the only point to this congressional tantrum, the reason for doing it was to prove to the White House and America that they could.

But things may not be that surgical. The in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound mentality that got us to this point in the first place won’t have disappeared among the Republican caucus overnight. Neither will the very real animosities between Speaker Boehner and President Obama.

And neither will the uncertainty, whether it’s seen through a macro lens — Goldman Sachs estimates a government shutdown could cost the United States $8 billion a week — or the micro, up-close, personal lens, the one that reveals the cost of this shutdown to millions of everyday people caught in the undertow of a party more informed, animated and powered by outrage than anything else.

Image credits: Boehner: via “Moon and Half Dome” (1960) by Ansel Adams/© 2013 Ansel Adams Gallery. Obama: White House via Durbin: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press. 

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