As I write this America is 31 hours away from the first government shutdown since 1995-96. On Friday the Senate voted to amend the continuing resolution by removing the House riders that would prevent any funding to implement the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is set to begin individual enrollment on Tuesday October 1st. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I'll leave it to the reader to decide. My concern is how we got to this point and what do we do about it now?
First, how we got here seems to be a matter of partisan preference. Either the Republicans are acting like intransigent elephants by insisting on a bill that undoes a duly passed law or the Democrats are acting like stubborn jackasses by refusing to negotiate with House Republicans on the contents of the resolution to continue funding the government until a budget deal can be reached. Again, where you stand probably depends upon which side of the aisle you sit.
One thing, however, is particularly clear. Most of what is passing for political discussion in Washington is simply a very loud public relations campaign. Republican Ted Cruz (R-TX) took to the airwaves insisting that everything happening or about to happen lies solely at the feet of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for taking an 'absolutist' position that will force a government shutdown. In his view, Reid should acquiesce to the GOP demand for defunding or delaying the ACA. Reid, for his part, says the Senate will not consider any further resolutions pushed through the House on party line votes by the GOP. Neither party is talking to the other in a serious effort to negotiate, though it is difficult to negotiate with those who refuse to do so, which aptly describes the leadership in both parties.
A broader question remains to be addressed: how did we get to the point where one party believes it can make demands that must be met in order for orderly continuation of government? The answer to that, I believe lies squarely in the Oval Office. Governing from party created crisis to party created crisis began shortly after Republicans took control of the House in early 2011. First, they wasted their breath passing repeal after repeal of the ACA that would never be considered by the Democratically controlled Senate. The same with Paul Ryan's 'roadmap' budgets that contained dramatic cuts in discretionary spending, including the same $750 billion (over ten years) cut to Medicare that President Obama utilized to fund the ACA. This was followed by the near breach of the debt ceiling in August of 2011 that resulted in a lowering of the nation's credit rating. Days before the U.S. would default on its debts, the president made some concessions to the GOP in exchange for an increase in the debt ceiling and a budget agreement through FY 2012. A few months later came negotiations over the expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, followed by the collapse of the so-called 'Supercommittee' to reach a budget deal (resulting in the across the board cuts that took effect in March). In late August and early September Obama announced his intention to launch punitive strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons in the sectarian civil war going on there but then backpedaled when Congress refused to back him (though claiming authority to act anyway). In short, the president has encouraged the kind of nonsense politics playing out in Washington by repeatedly drawing a line in the sand and then scribbling it out to draw a new one. Yesterday, the president vowed to veto any spending resolution that goes after the ACA in any way. The question is, will he stand his ground this time or back down in the face of more GOP threats?
How long will the brinksmanship continue? Only until someone realizes there are winnable battles and unwinnable battles. Only a fool wages a battle he cannot win. But given recent history the GOP may think history will repeat itself yet again, making this battle seem all the more winnable.