First things first, let’s stipulate that if there’s a government shutdown at the end of the month — and I continue to doubt there will be — it will happen because House Speaker John Boehner chooses to precipitate one.
He can always partner with Democrats to pass a temporary, uncontroversial government spending bill if he wants to, because almost all Democrats will vote for it, and there are still a few dozen Republicans in the House who are both sane and unintimidated by the threat of a primary challenge from the right.
Whatever happens is his decision. The latest doomed-to-fail idea floating around top GOP circles is that leadership should try to trick rank and file Republicans into voting to fund the government by passing a larded-up debt limit increase first — even though the debt limit deadline is a few weeks off — and pretending they won’t cave on it later.
There are plenty of reasons this is unlikely to work, which I’ll explain in a followup article. If Boehner then picks a shutdown, it won’t be because he’s gone full Tea Party. If anything, Boehner’s relationship with the right wing of his party is more strained than ever. He openly derided the dead enders in his conference to the press last week, and has bemoaned their unreasonableness in private to other congressional leaders, who are left twiddling their thumbs while the window for avoiding a shutdown closes.
If anything, Boehner’s been conspicuously circumspect about not allowing his party to repeat the mistakes they made in the ’90s, and shutting down the government is at or near the top of that list.
There’s one, and only one reason Boehner would invite a shutdown, and it’s actually a good one. I’d even argue it’s something the Obama administration and Senate Democrats should have courted earlier in his speakership, or even in the spring this year. But the fiscal calendar facing the country right now is unique, and makes the proposition exceptionally dangerous.
Whether you’re Boehner or Harry Reid or President Obama, the argument for allowing a shutdown looks about the same. It’s perhaps the only way to persuade monomaniacal House Republicans that there’s a difference between negotiation and extortion — that if their extreme demands touch off a visible crisis like a government shutdown, everyone will know who’s at fault. That’d be great for Democrats for obvious reasons.
For Boehner, forcing a shutdown would be akin to spiking an addict’s stash in the hope of hastening rock bottom — a novel but extremely risky strategy when all other attempts at intervention have failed.
One possible hazard is that conservative House members have become so radicalized in the Obama era, and their districts so right-wing, that they’re inured from the political consequences of a shutdown in a way that Newt Gingrich’s members weren’t. Some of them likely are. But others will take notice when Obamacare implementation continues unabated, services are interrupted, and their constituents get angry.
Then and only then, the thinking goes, Boehner’s members will stop behaving like extremists, and he’ll stop having to kowtow to them. It’s a solid idea. Unlike Obama’s reelection, which Republicans have been able to excuse away by blaming Mitt Romney and an imagined pandemic of government dependency, a failed shutdown would actually awaken conservatives to the limits of their own power and appeal. It might even “break the fever” as Obama and his aides were fond of saying last year about the analgesic potential of his victory.
The Obama administration even flirted with the idea of letting Republicans overreach in the spring of 2011 when a shutdown might’ve helped forestall a horrendous debt limit fight just a few months later.
But unfortunately the country doesn’t have the luxury of draining conservative morale for weeks on end this time. The debt limit needs to be increased just two and a half weeks after funding for the government lapses at the end of September. If Boehner allows a shutdown and most of Congress goes home, he’d have about 18 days before he’d need to call everyone back to Washington, regardless of the political consequences of a shutdown.
Information and public opinion both move faster today than they did in 1995. But the last government shutdown lasted nearly a full month. A repeat this time around would precipitate an economically ruinous default on the national debt. Boehner won’t allow that.
The obvious right play would be for Boehner to lead. Cut the Tea Party loose. Fund the government. Increase the debt limit. Move on.
Letting the government shut down might work, too. But it also might not last long enough to tame his conference before a much larger bill comes due. Which is why Boehner will probably do what he’s done all year when faced with immovable deadlines: Wait until the last minute, break the Hastert Rule, live to fight another day. Unfortunately for everyone who’s not a House Republican hard-liner, that day will come less than a month later.