As I write this the government is 7 days away from a shutdown that neither party will admit to wanting. Yet, the irrationality of rational action may well produce this undesirable outcome. At the heart of it lies the fact that some in the GOP, mostly freshman and sophomore Tea Party Republicans, hate the president and his healthcare law so much that they are willing to shut down the government and forfeit their own paychecks, prevent Social Security payments from being made, and cause IOU's to be delivered to hundreds of thousands of government workers. Add to that the economic chaos as people dependent upon these checks stop going out to eat or to ballgames or shopping and it is a recipe for disaster. All because of some misguided belief that the Affordable Healthcare Act is some kind of socialist medical bogeyman that must be killed no matter the cost to representative democracy.
Yet, even though the Tea Party cannot win this fight it is one they want to and, indeed, must wage. First, they cannot win because the parliamentary rules of the Senate preclude it. Sometime in the next few days Majority Leader Harry Reid will make a motion to proceed on the continuing resolution (CR) stripping funding from Obamacare that passed the House on Friday. This motion can be filibustered, which will put Republicans in the awkward position of opposing a resolution their colleagues in the House were urged to pass. So either they don't filibuster the resolution or Reid moves for cloture on the resolution, which will take 60 votes (55 Democrats plus 5 from the GOP). He will likely get many more than 60. Once cloture has been invoked Reid can offer an amendment to the resolution that strips the defund language out, which can pass with only 51 votes. Republicans can then filibuster the new resolution or allow it to pass, in which case it goes back to the House. Speaker John Boehner will then have the clean continuing resolution he originally wanted to pass that maintains the sequester level of spending through mid-December. However, this clean CR will still need to garner majority support in the House to pass and be sent to the president. Here's where things get sticky for Speaker Boehner.
As of the start of the 113th Congress in January of this year the Tea Party Caucus had 49 members, all Republicans. The GOP currently holds 233 seats in the House and needs 218 votes to pass the clean CR. If the Tea Party Caucus remains firm in its resolve to defund Obamacare and vote against any CR that does not do so it leaves the Speaker in a bind. Assuming Boehner, like all other members of Congress, is a self-interested, rational actor whose primary goal is winning re-election and maintaining his position (as Mayhew claims), he will not bring the clean CR to the floor for a vote. Why not? Because doing so will mean he must rely on Democratic support to pass the CR, thus violating the unwritten 'Hastert Rule', which states that a measure may only be brought to the floor when it can pass with 218 votes from the majority party (the minority is free to join in but cannot provide the votes that put the bill over the top). Boehner has violated this rule on at least three occasions this year already but if he does it again he may well see a movement to replace him as speaker. So the rational thing to do is stand his ground even if it results in the irrational action of a government shutdown.
Likewise for Tea Party members it is entirely rational for their self-preservation to oppose any CR that does not defund Obamacare. Nationally, polls show that a majority of Americans, and even a majority of Republicans, oppose a government shutdown, the Tea Party Caucus members do not have a national constituency. Only the president has that. Tea Party members have a dual constituency of a different nature. First, they must answer to the voters in their congressional districts that elected them to represent their interests in Washington, D.C. In many of these districts the voters are as conservative, if not more so, than the members themselves. The boundary lines in many of these districts have been drawn to elect Republicans to the House and have been made as safe as possible for the incumbent. Further, most of these members represent districts that are between 10 and 15 percentage points more conservative than the nation as a whole, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index of the 113th Congress. A vote that defies the wishes of their constituents may well lead to a primary challenge from the right. Thus, a self-interested Tea Party member must oppose the clean CR if he/she hopes to be reelected.
The second constituency for Tea Party Caucus members to answer to are the funders who paid for their campaigns. Contrary to popular perception most Tea Party members did not arrive in Washington based on a groundswell of grass roots activism. True, they may have won the district primary based on grass roots support but that alone does not win congressional elections. It takes money, and lots of it to win a seat in the House. Much of the fundraising comes from special interest groups like the Club for Growth or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have vowed to make sure that the voting constituents know if a Tea Party member backs down on the defunding movement. Thus, it becomes rational for Tea Party members to take a stance that may well result in the irrational act of shutting down the government and causing great harm to the national economy, the GOP, and many Americans.