Clueless Republicans hatch incoherent shutdown strategy

The GOP's fixation on extracting anything from Obama is blinding them to the incoherence of their game plan

Published October 7, 2013 4:45PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                                                                                                                      (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

This weekend, House Republicans passed more bills to fund the most photogenic parts of the federal government, hoping perhaps that the 11th time will be the charm, or that they can eventually trick Democrats into underplaying their winning hand. They even passed one, with overwhelming Democratic support, to pay furloughed workers retroactively once the shutdown ends.

I gave this strategy brief treatment on Friday, if you want a primer. The short version is that Republicans are attempting, probably hopelessly, to reverse the optics of the government shutdown by attacking Democrats for not providing special treatment to its most conspicuous functions.

But in addition to relying on Americans to forget everything they know about the two political parties, this strategy -- if you can even call it a strategy -- is only about one inch deep. And in a way it almost reveals that Republicans don't have the fortitude they'll need if they seriously intend to not increase the debt limit.

Let's start with the following axiom: House Republicans wouldn't be holding serial votes on piecemeal government funding bills (all of which President Obama has threatened to veto, by the way) if they didn't know that suspending these programs was such a huge political liability. So suddenly the Republicans of arbitrary austerity and anti-bureaucrat fame are pretending to be tribunes of the public sector.

That dog won't hunt. At least I really doubt it will. But the strategic logic collapses entirely when you recall that the debt limit needs to be increased in two weeks.

These might sound like unrelated issues, but they're heavily entwined. Once the Treasury can no longer borrow to finance deficits, it will have to arbitrarily slash spending on everything the government does -- from defense, to social insurance, to medical research, and eventually to debt service.

The government currently borrows about 30 cents on every dollar, which means that irrespective of the impact on U.S. creditworthiness and global financial markets, the effects on these services will be enormous. Probably something like four or five times the impact of sequestration, but with no exemptions. And the only way to exempt anything (at least in theory) is to either force the administration to direct revenues toward favored services, which would mean much deeper cuts to everything else, or to allow the Treasury to borrow specifically to finance those services. In other words, to increase the debt limit but only for targeted purposes.

Pragmatically, neither of these options would work, but like the mini-appropriations bills the House has passed, they would allow Republicans to pretend they're trying to protect camera-ready government programs, or that the breach would be harmless but for Democratic intransigence. Indeed, the House has already attempted to force Treasury to prioritize interest payments to U.S. creditors -- to "Pay China First," as Democrats say -- and benefits for Social Security recipients in the event of a breach. That effort failed. But if it had succeeded, it would mean everything else -- all the things Republicans are rallying around right now -- would take a harder hit if U.S. borrowing authority lapses this month.

The GOP's current position thus boils down to to the laughable idea that nothing's more important than reopening federal monuments, funding clinical trials, and spending money on veterans services for two weeks, until we breach the debt limit and they have to be shut down again.

And it suggests that if we do breach the debt limit, even briefly, Republicans will move immediately to mitigate the political damage. But unlike a fight over appropriations, there's no real way to address the consequences in piecemeal fashion. The only way to fix the service interruptions will be to increase the debt limit. By then, though, U.S. standing will already have suffered irreparable harm and the economic consequences might be irreversible.

I think this probably says something about how serious Republicans are when they entertain the threat of breaching the debt limit. But their strategy is so purposeless and disjointed -- each move so blundering and ill-conceived -- it might also be the case that Republicans haven't put any thought into it at all. Getting a concession -- any concession, however narrow -- has become a fixation.

Don't believe me? Take it out of the mouths of the babes themselves.

“We’ve lost the CR battle,” Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., told Bloomberg this weekend. “We need to move on and take whatever we can find in the debt limit.”

Ross' comments echo those of Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who became the butt of every joke in D.C. last week when he told the conservative Washington Examiner “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

The GOP has fully internalized this sunk cost fallacy. What's worse, and scarier, is that many of them take no responsibility for the fact that they put themselves in the position they're in. They hold Obama accountable somehow for allowing them to inflict wounds upon themselves, and now he owes them a price for it.

In that sense, House Republicans have become the entitlement society of their fever dreams, in microcosm.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

MORE FROM Brian Beutler