Four Lessons from the GOP Shutdown Wars

Four Lessons from the GOP Shutdown Wars

iStockphoto/Library of Congress/The Fiscal Times

After weeks of extended brinksmanship over the debt ceiling and Obamacare and fifteen days of partial government shutdown, the smoke may be clearing. Congress appears ready to pass a bipartisan bill to reopen government and extend borrowing just in time to avoid a potential technical default. 

“This is a time of reconciliation,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared as he announced the deal, which will keep government operating though January 15th and raise the debt ceiling through February 7th.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted, “Republicans remain determined to repeal this terrible law [Obamacare],” which has been true all along.  Even Senator Ted Cruz gave up on this round, though, announcing that he would not block unanimous consent to get the bill as quickly as possible to the President’s desk for his signature.

Thus the 2013 budget standoff ends. What did Republicans win? Supporters of the “defund” strategy claim that the weeks-long drama heightened awareness of the disastrous Obamacare rollout, but that is an arguable claim.  It’s at least as likely that the focus on Capitol Hill partially distracted Americans from the debacle, and in the end didn’t gain anything for the trouble.  The standoff never produced the massive backlash against the program that the defund strategy advocates insisted would materialize – and which would force Barack Obama to cut funding to his central accomplishment.

Instead, Senate Republicans managed to safeguard the sequester cuts that have reduced federal government spending for two years in a row – the first time that has happened since the end of the Korean War, McConnell claims – and force the House and Senate into conference on the FY2014 budget.  That last result was a goal for the Democrats, though, not Republicans, who refused for months to use regular order on the FY2014 budget in order to set up this confrontation.

In other words, Republicans ended up with almost nothing from the shutdown and the debt-ceiling scare. In exchange for almost nothing, the standoff produced big splits within the House caucus, the only part of government that the GOP actually controls. Speaker John Boehner couldn’t get enough votes to pass one last alternative to the Reid-McConnell bill, in part because the Tea Party wing didn’t think that a medical-device tax delay would be enough of a win. Now Boehner will have to rely on Nancy Pelosi for enough votes to pass the Senate compromise and maybe for anything else the rest of this session.

What lessons should Republicans learn from this debacle?

1 – You can’t bluff that you hold all the aces when your opponents have two of them. Elections have consequences, and the 2012 elections had large consequences for Obamacare opponents.  President Obama’s re-election and the failure of the GOP to win control of the Senate meant an end to any thoughts of dismantling the Affordable Care Act, whether by repeal or “defunding.” Voters only left Republicans in charge of the House even while making Obamacare a campaign issue. With Democrats in charge of the Senate and White House, there was no possibility that Obama would agree to end his signature legislative achievement before its rollout, and no chance that the Senate would even present him with the opportunity to sign such a bill. 

Unfortunately, some believed that staging a shutdown over Obamacare would create enough momentum to achieve the impossible.  When it didn’t work, the leaders of this strategy had no alternative ready, and kept demanding that Republican leadership keep doubling down, especially in the House. The lack of an escape plan from the bluff is what led to the breakdown in the House, and why Senate Republicans had to cut a deal in the end.

2 – Remember who your friends are, because you’ll need them later.  Republicans have been united on the goal of ending Obamacare in the long run. No Republican officeholder has argued to keep and fix Obamacare, or embrace it as permanently inevitable.

When Republicans began debating strategy weeks earlier, though, the split between “defunders” and “delayers” (pushing for a one-year delay in Obamacare that the administration might end up needing anyway) quickly turned nasty. Conservatives started declaring that any Republican that voted for a budget that included funding for Obamacare would be a supporter and “owner” of the ACA. That angered those who simply disagreed on strategy and tactics and contributed in large part to the disunity that followed. 

3 – Know your civics. One of the arguments floated by defunding advocates was that the House has Constitutional primacy on spending matters and that the Senate and President have no choice but to submit to their will. Quite frankly, this is absurd. Tax bills have to originate in the House (Article I, Section 7), but still have to pass the Senate and get a presidential signature to become law.  Either chamber can appropriate, and both must concur and get the President to sign the bill before a budget or individual appropriation can become law. Congress as a whole controls the power of the purse, not the House on its own, and the President has the ability to veto budgets and appropriations, even if recent presidents have rarely exercised that power.  

Of course, the House could have simply continued to refuse to reach a compromise with the Senate unless everyone else caved to GOP demands.  That’s essentially what happened over the last several months of refusing conference committees, and during the two weeks of the shutdown. Voters who re-elected Obama and a Democratic majority in the Senate didn’t find nihilism compelling (see Lesson 1), which again demonstrated why the defunding strategy was not the right choice under these circumstances.

The only way to dismantle Obamacare is to win elections. That should be the big takeaway from this episode, if nothing else.  That leads us to …

4 – Cheer up. Despite the undeniable flop of this strategy and the embarrassment of staging a two-week shutdown with nothing to show for it, it’s not the end of the world for Republicans. By avoiding the debt limit and potentially crossing the Rubicon of a default (and there is considerable doubt as to whether that would actually be the case), the damage to the GOP will be minimal.  The 1996 shutdown did less damage to Republicans than conventional wisdom holds, and in this case the next election won’t have an incumbent President on the top of the ticket.

Instead, the focus can now shift to the disastrous impact of the ACA itself, which voters left in place with their choices in 2012. It’s not just the federal exchange, which will eventually get fixed.  Premiums have skyrocketed . Americans will now have to spend thousands of dollars more on health care whether they receive subsidies on the exchanges or not.  The sticker shock on the premium prices will crescendo over the next few weeks, and the out-of-pocket expense growth will continue all year until the midterm elections.

By that time, it won’t matter whether we had a partial government shutdown for a couple of weeks, or who won or lost this skirmish. What will matter is that the electorate will finally realize that the so-called Affordable Care Act turned out to be anything but affordable, and that nothing will change as long as Democrats remain in charge.  That will give Republicans a chance to incrementally improve their position and prepare for the possibility of a repeal in 2017 – if the coalition on the Right can keep from savaging itself over strategies and tactics in between.