THE SANTA CLARA
October 3, 2013
As the song goes: How do you solve a problem like the U.S. Congress?
For the first time in 17 years, Congress failed to pass a bill authorizing the federal government to spend money, and so the government closed its doors at national parks, museums, NASA and many other federal departments.
And the worst part? It should never have happened.
Like the Cleveland Browns beating the Cincinnati Bengals, the shutdown was once an unfathomable scenario that could only happen as the result of several insane moves coming together perfectly. President Barack Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner all said long ago that they absolutely did not want to be in this situation.
Then how did it happen? The easy answer is the usual suspects in the Tea Party, but it goes deeper than that. It goes back to what Boehner said three years ago, and the system in which he works.
When Obamacare was still only a bill sitting up on Capitol Hill, Boehner was minority leader in the House. The White House and congressional Democrats made several overtures to Republicans to make the bill bipartisan.
They were willing to accept ideas such as cracking down on Medicare fraud, dumping the public option and introducing the individual mandate. Let no one forget, the mandate was an idea generated by a conservative think tank in the 1990s, not Democrats.
Boehner’s response? No. Every time, at every opportunity. No, no, no.
The idea was that the bill would be a Democrat-led monstrosity, and Republicans would ride it to victory in the 2010 elections, giving Boehner the Speakership. Well, good job, Boehner, because your plan has come back to bite you.
Yes, the Tea Party roared to life and the Republicans took back the House, but they’ve been overplaying their hand ever since. Republican-led state legislatures drew congressional districts that locked their members into an echo chamber of anti-Obama fever.
These extremely conservative members of Congress, forming what some are starting to appropriately label the “Suicide Caucus,” have made destroying Obamacare their number one — if not their only — priority. Only about 50 in number, they have refused to pass any type of federal spending bill unless it contains provisions limiting Obamacare, and the rest of their party is running scared.
Thus, here we are.
Boehner, by all measures, is a moderate Republican. He’s a lifelong politician — not a Ted Cruz-esque flash-in-the-pan ideologue.
Yet from the get-go he’s been hampered by the rabid fervor of the Tea Party, and he has to voice their issues or lose any remaining semblance that he’s in control. They have no reason to compromise. They’re safe in their protected districts. Now it has come to this, where Congress’ approval rating has hit 10 percent.
Nixon had twice as much support during the height of the Watergate scandal.
The shutdown could end at any time. Boehner could say he will stand no more, bring a funding bill without Obamacare amendments to the floor and it would pass by a decent bipartisan margin. But he won’t, because it will cost him his position. If he didn’t get a Tea Party challenger in his district, he’d assuredly lose his Speakership. He already had a close call keeping it in January, and he’s not about to risk it again.
Boehner could be an American hero today, but it would require noble sacrifice, and he’s not ready to be the martyr we deserve.
But to some extent, Boehner is just a cog in a very broken machine. The system itself is crippled. Fundamental changes across the board would be needed to prevent another breakdown this cataclysmic.
Campaign finance reform would have to be implemented so that money wouldn’t be the deciding factor in elections (which means overturning a couple Supreme Court precedents).
Instituting citizens’ commissions to draw congressional districts would ensure fairness instead of party control. California’s commission is the first of its kind and by all accounts did a great job in generating competitiveness.
Finally, the Constitution would have to be amended so that Congress’ pay would be suspended during a federal shutdown. Why should they feel financially stable when 800,000 federal employees are left to twist in the wind without pay?
Whenever this shutdown is over, the next one will be a lot sooner than another 17 years if things don’t change. And in two weeks, we hit the nation’s debt ceiling, which will effectively cripple our economy. If this current debate has been any indication, we’d better start hiding our money under mattresses.
For now, though, the government’s closed, and Obamacare is being implemented anyway.
Well done, Tea Party. Bravo.
Jonathan Tomczak is a senior political science and history double major and editor of the Opinion section.