The Shutdown Endgame: Getting to a Budget Deal, Protecting Our Democracy

The Shutdown Endgame: Getting to a Budget Deal, Protecting Our Democracy

To understand how we get out of the shutdown mess, it is important to understand how we got here.   The central cause of the current government shutdown is the House Republican’s inability to propose a realistic budget and pass any appropriations bills this year.   The struggles they had in making their numbers add up in their budget process this spring, well documented here by Politico’s David Rogers, left the House without a fiscal consensus they could use to negotiate with the Senate.   This, in turn, led the House to take the remarkable step of boycotting a budget conference committee, the normal process our government has used for hundreds of years to get to a budget which allows the US government to operate.

The government shut down on October 1st because Congress has not passed a budget to fund it for the fiscal year 2014. This shutdown really isn’t about Obamacare.  Until the House drops its opposition to negotiating with the Senate to produce a budget, the current brinksmanship will continue.   There is only one way to remove the threat of a shutdown – the House must return to the budget negotiating table and help provide the country with a budget to fund our government next year.   Anything short of that is just political noise.   And thus the President and Senator Reid are right to object to negotiations over anything other than doing what is mandated by the Constitution and funding the government.

The remarkable reluctance of the GOP to enter into serious budget negotiations to resolve the crisis can be explained in two ways.  One, they know it removes their leverage, forces them to confront their own internal fiscal incoherence, and is likely to a result in a budget not palatable to many House Republicans.  Second, it brings to a premature end another of their strategic goals of this conflict: to change the Constitutional arrangements of our government to give the minority party more power than it is currently allocated.   The clear evidence that this is a strategic goal of the Republicans is the list of issues, which go far beyond the new health care law, Speaker Boehner floated as ones he wanted negotiated to raise the debt ceiling.  None of these many proposals - environmental, regulatory, health - involve, of course, mechanisms for ending the budget stalemate (go to the end of the piece for a full list).

Every one of these proposals has passed the Republican House, and then has been rejected by the Senate.  Thus in our system of governing, the Congress had rejected them, and the minority party failed to get its way.  By using the threat of economic catastrophe as a way of reconsidering ideas already defeated in our democratic process, the House Republicans are attempting to create a new system of legislating which would allow their defeated ideas to pass the Senate (which had already rejected them) and be signed into law.  And it was not just one issue they were trying to re-litigate but dozens – their entire domestic agenda in other words.

Given all this the responsible path for the President and the Senate is to call the House Republicans to an immediate budgetary conference committee and begin negotiating the only thing that will remove the threat of a shutdown – an actual budget for the United States government.  Once the Committee convenes, the two chambers should pass a two month Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until a final budget is negotiated.   All other negotiations – over partial CRs, debt ceiling, etc – are tabled.

The President has an extraordinary obligation to proceed in this way.  He cannot allow one party to decide not to participate in the age old process our democracy has created for funding its government.  He cannot allow a minority party to unilaterally, extra-Constitutionally, dictate the terms of how our democracy will work.  He cannot allow the country to be governed this way.  It weakens our democracy and our national security, is terribly expensive and unsettling to global markets.  And perhaps worst of all, in a time of great global challenge it sends a signal to the world that the world’s most important democracy is itself having a terrible time making democracy work at home.  In that sense it not just undermines our democracy, but undermines and weakens the global movement to bring more political freedom and opportunity to people throughout the entire world.  

My hope is that the President stands firm in the coming days.  There is much at stake in this fight.  His focus should be clear: re-open our government, negotiate a budget deal, and protect our democracy.  Reject half-steps or pointless negotiations.  Do the right thing, and we will all benefit.

According to press accounts, Speaker Boehner is considering the following in his negotiations over raising the debt ceiling: a one-year delay of the Affordable Care Act, a “fast-track” tax reform authority, Keystone XL Pipeline construction, an overhaul of Dodd-Frank regulation, more offshore oil drilling, more permitting of energy exploration on federal lands, suspending the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to regulate carbon emissions , rolling back regulations on coal ash, elimination of a $23 billion fund to ensure the orderly dissolution of failed major banks, elimination of mandatory contributions to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, limiting medical malpractice lawsuits and increase means testing for Medicare, and repeal of the Public Health Trust Fund.