The safety restraint in Washington's shutdown

There is a view, often espoused by libertarians and small government conservatives, that the US constitution is designed to make the act of governing as troublesome as possible. By granting the president and the two houses of Congress separate but overlapping powers, the theory goes, the Founding Fathers wanted to make passing laws or enacting budgets so difficult that few laws or budgets would ever see the light of day. 

In this telling, the dramatic expansion of the federal government since the Great Depression – overseen by presidents of both parties – has been an unrelenting 80-year war against a constitution, devised by secular saints like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, to prevent precisely such 'abuses'. For adherents to this worldview, the gridlock and dysfunction that currently besets Washington DC in the form of the government shutdown represents an invigorating and long-overdue fightback.

And they couldn't have hoped to find two better battles than Obamacare and the debt ceiling, both emblematic to these groups of grotesque federal overreach. The more protracted, the messier, the better. Former presidential contender and Tea Party caucus convener Michele Bachmann was typically frank: "This is historic," she told The Washington Examiner of the shutdown, "and it's a historic shift that's about to happen, and if we're going to fight, we need to fight now."

Bachmann does not represent a majority view within the GOP caucus, let alone the Congress. In fact, there are probably fewer than 40 hardliners among the 232 Republicans in the House of Representatives who embrace the shutdown as merrily as Bachmann, and no more than five or six of the 46 Senate Republicans. Most GOP lawmakers are mortified by conduct they consider unbecoming, reckless, and electorally suicidal. And yet the fanatical minority holds sway over current GOP strategy. How is this so?

At one level, the answer is surprisingly straightforward. The factional breakdown between pro-shutdown ultra conservatives and the relatively moderate wing within the Republican caucus is far less pertinent than this number: according to a CBS News poll last week, 48 per cent of Republican voters – and 57 per cent of self-identified Tea Partiers – support the government shutdown.

And most incumbents, representing deep red districts thanks to gerrymandering efforts I have written about previously (Border skirmishes: The gerrymandering game pulling Republicans apartAugust 7), are far more vulnerable to primary challenges from the Tea Party flank than they are to Democrats in the General Election. A vote to end the shutdown can be turned overnight into attack ads painting them as (shock!) soft on Obamacare or (horror!) dovish on deficits – and either position is enough to inflame primary voters and end careers.

You would be brave to bet against a right-wing challenger in today's climate, especially when you consider that low turnout primary elections tend to disproportionately attract fringe voters. That explains why even moderates alarmed by the current state of play are nonetheless eager to avoid expressing themselves in the form of a recorded vote. And it’s why, despite there being easily enough votes between mainstream Republicans and Democrats to end the government shutdown immediately, Speaker John Boehner won’t bring the matter to the floor of the House. He doesn’t want to force colleagues to vote in the national interest, or they may punish him for doing so by sacking him.

And so it barrels on: next stop, negotiations over the debt ceiling for which the deadline is October 17 (Showdown at the Senate saloonOctober 7). For decades a perfunctory measure adopted without fanfare since it simply authorises borrowing against spending already signed off by the Congress, the debt ceiling has emerged in the past year as a key front in the battle against Big Government. Even with economists and Wall Street Republicans warning that debt default by the US government would trigger global panic in the financial markets, GOP hardliners seem determined to test the proposition. Such a drastic step is too much for Boehner and his party’s leadership, who may have stumbled on a strategy to avoid the edge of the cliff. By linking the current Obamacare stand-off to the debt ceiling vote, Boehner can theoretically wrap two critical measures – ending the shutdown and raising the debt ceiling – into an all-encompassing negotiated package with the White House. 

While Obama has shown no eagerness to compromise (following Napoleon’s dictum never to interrupt your enemy while he’s making a mistake), he also understands that, ultimately, saving Boehner’s job may be the only way to avoid a catastrophic default. Expect to see emerging in the coming week contours of a deal involving some minor tax cuts, and perhaps even expedited approval for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

In one of the strangest political twists in recent memory, it may have become necessary to keep the US federal government shut down for a further two weeks to avert an even more reckless stunt. For all the head-shaking and consternation around the world at what appears from the outside as foolishness on a grand scale, the most alarming aspect of this whole affair is how much sense it all makes the closer you look. 

Phil Quin is a New York based consultant and freelance writer and former advisor to Gareth Evans and Steve Bracks. He can be found on twitter at @philquin

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The Shutdowners are portrayed by all commentators as irresponsible and loony. The "reasonable" "sensible" "mature" approach apparently would be for all to accept the progressive expansion of The Federal govt (with just a hint of nostalgia for the old but impossible idea of "DO IT YOURSELF") and to embrace the sophisticated and necessary mechanism for managing their national finances by regularly increasing Washington's credit card limit (and to enable the world's financial system not to fail). Obama even trumpets that the US would be "deadbeat" if it didn't agree to borrow more to pay iuts way. What??!!

Well - sounds nuts to me. The Yanks have fallen in love with welfare, but don't like each other enough for the potential contributors to pay for it all. So there's a strike of the contributors. That's not new. Washington bas been spending much more than it's been taxing for 15 years. THAT IS WHAT NEEDS TO BE RESOLVED. The Shutdowners are at the pointy end of that conflict.

The shut-downers have jumped the Gun. They get to the "pointy end" when they are in a position to legislate to cut spending and raise taxes. At that point, obfuscation over responsibility will not be possible.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction Newtons third law of motion.

QE has stmulated an absurd reaction and that proves my point, that cash can only be lossened to a certain point, going below that is counter productive. Just a reaction to the destruction of capital.

New ways of thinking are required.

Does anyone know who calls the shots for the tea party?

My money is on the Koch brothers, who coincidentally have a major commercial interest in the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Alan, the US war of independence was a product of the Boston Tea Party. It was about taxation - pure and simply about taxation.

The US civil war was about taxation and slavery.

So being rich and not wanting to pay taxes is what the TEA Party is about.

Fiscal deficits = lack of tax receipts. Lack of tax receipts = QE. QE = war.

What we are seeing is the result of having a series of close election results. It was bound eventually to reach the point of a stand off, where the Party not elected ignored past election realities, in favour of an attempted de facto power grab, that is bordering on being an attempted coup d'etat. The question here is if America's democratic system is strong enough to prevail, to press on with an essential social reform that is in the direction of all progressive democratic nations. What America confronts here is what it rightly criticises in other nations, its own backwardness.

Maybe - just maybe - part of the determination not to give in to the Right Wing Republicans comes from the historic standoff in SanFranciso in 1967 between Huey P Newton and a member of the police, as the Black Panthers stood outside Ramparts magazine offices, forming an armed bodyguard for Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz. It became a defining moment in the civil rights movement, a moment when the poorest of the American people said they would no longer be pushed around and bullied without protest.

I don't think Obama will back down. But just as in that symbolic moment in 1967 America changed, so in this standoff America will change again. The Right has invested big time in this moment. What really undermines its efforts, is that the Right has so abused its power worldwide. Europe has been reduced to a high degree of economic, political and social chaos through Merkel's ill advised promotion of "austerity" policies in exchange for paper. Russia has descended into corruption and repression, and in an America of declining middle class and working class prosperity, the Right rails against the universal provision of the most basic of essential humanitarian services, the care of the sick. The Right has demonstrated that it is currently unfit to rule our Democratic Free Enterprise society. It has placed the form before the purpose, deregulated Capitalism as a form, before the provision of need, prosperity and social security.

Any American President stands in the footprints of Lincoln at Gettysburg defending the resolution "that Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". This article and Robert Gottliebsen's parallel article are correct, this is a standoff of epic dimensions and it is foolish. But the foolishness is entirely on the part of a Republican and Tea party that sees itself - as so often Right Wing Conservatism sees itself - as" the rightful Government in exile"

Sad to think, in this whole mess that Lincoln himself was a Republican. He would have looked on the present amalgam of Republicans and Tea Party with dismay, and sadly shaken his wise old head. Our friends and allies Stateside need to wake up to themselves and get on with the process of setting an example of social reform to the world. Does Democracy exist there as a political form to be defended - or is it merely a tool to be used by bullies when they see that as advantageous, and cast aside when they do not?

I thought it was supposed to be "the majority rules" in a democracy.
The USA however, is not being ruled that way at this time.
Nor will Australia be ruled by the majority when the new Senate is set up next year.
In our previous parliament, the minority also had a great deal of power and was the tail wagging the dog.

Democracy is just a system for creating a govt, not "rule by the majority". "Dictatorship of the majority", like used to apply in Ulster and Cyprus and the brief Muslim Brotherhood govt in Egypt, and elsewhere, is crude and triggers revolt. What makes democracy work is the COMPLIANCE OF THE LOSER, and that requires some humility in the winner..

For Rau to be right about the Shutdowners implies that an opposition party has no power, and it's job is to grumble then say yes. That's never been true in any democracy, and it's not healthy for a democracy if it applies.

It's not that the Shutdowners are right and Obama is wrong, but the US cannot keep voting itself welfare that it won't pay for! No point in abusing the reluctant taxpayer. He's as entitled - WITHIN THE LAW - to not want to give as the taker is to want to take. You can't compel citizens to love their neighbour, and the amount of love that can be fiscally expressed in Welfare is finite. Politicians buy entitlement-recipients votes with taxpayers money. Call it what you like, but that's a compulsory charitable donation and the process needs to be sensitively handled.

Wherever you sit on the L-R spectrum, the same laws of arithmetic apply. A major beef about Obamacare (a friendly piece of socialist welfare spending) was that it wasn't properly funded! That nonsense must stop. Washington has become a slop bucket of entitlement spending which they can't get the potential funders to fund, so they borrow the difference. Obamsa is now making a virtue of this fecklessness.