Monday, 14 October 2013

U.S.: Shutdown & Boehner's ambitions

US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden are scheduled to meet congressional leaders from both parties as the deadline to raise the nation's debt limit nears. The bipartisan meeting will include leaders from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. A shutdown of the US government, also a result of the political deadlock, has now entered its third week.

Republicans refused to approve a new budget unless President Obama agreed to delay or eliminate the funding of the Affordable Care Act, his signature healthcare reform law of 2010. Mr Obama has refused to budge on the matter, accusing Republicans of "extortion" in using the shutdown and the nation's debt limit as leverage in negotiations.

Congressional Democrats are now said to be using the looming debt ceiling deadline as leverage to push back against previously enacted cuts to the US government budget. Analysts say the Senate talks represent the last best hope for a debt deal before Thursday, after talks between the White House and the Republican-led House of Representatives collapsed last week.

Government and private sector analysts have warned for weeks of the dire consequences should Congress fail to reach an agreement on raising the nation's debt ceiling. On Sunday, the head of the International Monetary Fund said defaulting on the nation's debt could tip the world into another recession. "If there is that degree of disruption, that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the US signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over," Christine Lagarde said in an interview with NBC's Meet the Press.

In its effort to extract concessions from Democrats in exchange for opening the government, the GOP has faced a fundamental strategic obstacle: They don't have the votes. A majority of the members of the House have gone on record saying that if they were given the opportunity to vote, they would support what's known as a "clean" continuing resolution to fund the government. So House Republican leaders made sure no such vote could happen.

In the hours working up to the government shutdown on Sept. 30, Republican members of the House Rules Committee were developing a strategy to keep a clean CR off the floor, guaranteeing the government would remain shut down. Though at least 28 House Republicans have publicly said they would support a clean CR if it were brought to the floor -- enough votes for the government to reopen when combined with Democratic support -- a House rule passed just before the shutdown essentially prevents that vote from taking place.

The recently passed House Resolution 368 trumped the standing rules. Where any member of the House previously could have brought the clean resolution to the floor under House Rule 22, House Resolution 368 -- passed on the eve of the shutdown -- gave that right exclusively to the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. The Rules Committee, under the rules of the House, changed the standing rules of the House to take away the right of any member to move to vote to open the government, and gave that right exclusively to the Republican Leader.

Where's the fun? To put the question another way: Why can't the leader of the party in Congress control the party on the most important issues and votes? The answers apply equally to Democrats and Republicans. A series of self-inflicted errors by the two political parties over the past 40 years have left party leaders with no whip and little power.

After Vietnam and Watergate, there was a reform spirit that wanted to open and democratise the process of selecting party candidates for office, as well as get special-interest money out of politics.
The first part worked too well. Party candidates all came to be picked through open primary elections. In the process, the parties lost the ability to select loyal candidates in smoke-filled back rooms - they lost a source of power and persuasion.

The campaign finance reforms, however, backfired entirely. The post-Richard Nixon idea was to stop party bosses from doling out money from local moguls, unions and corporations. Instead, the reforms deformed and opened the spigots for money to flow directly to candidates from all the old sources, bypassing the party machines. The quantities of money have grown to gargantuan proportions.

By the 1980s, politicians were essentially free agents. They didn't need the parties to get nominated or to fund campaigns. Pollsters, advertising wizards and fundraisers replaced the party bosses. And the party leaders in Congress lost their leverage. At the same time, computers and marketing data gave political professionals new precision in drawing the map of congressional districts. Individual districts have become much more homogenous - overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. It has never been easy to unseat an incumbent. But now, once candidates of the dominant party in these gerrymandered districts get the nomination, they are home free.

So members of the Congress, especially in the House, mostly have safe seats and are immune from challenges by the other party. Their bigger challenges come from within their own parties and that tends to drive them further right or left. Voting patterns are as partisan now as at any time since after the Civil War. All that means the House is filled with increasingly ideological members who aren't especially worried about re-election and are impervious to the party whip and discipline.

From 1949 to 1995, the Democrats controlled the House except for two years in the 1950s. That is a long time to be in the political wilderness, with the Republicans effectively shut out of governing and legislative power. They developed a sort of frustrated minority party mentality, locked out of power and able only to toss bombs, make mischief and obstruct.

Since the 1920s, Republicans have controlled the White House, Senate and House of Representatives at the same time only during parts of George W Bush's two terms. So modern House Republicans have had virtually no experience actually sharing the responsibility of governing. Their minority mentality lingers. And it shows.

Republicans were led back to power in the House in 1995 by one of the most mischievous, incendiary party leaders ever, Newt Gingrich. He led the way to a government shutdown that year that was considered disastrous to Republicans. But the Gingrich confrontation now seems far more rational than the Boehner shutdown. First off, back then Republicans also controlled the Senate and so had more leverage with the Democratic White House. And Mr Gingrich's Republicans were pushing for a broad set of coherent conservative changes to the budget. There were realistic grounds for negotiation.

Mr Boehner's Republicans are pushing to repeal a sitting president's hallmark achievement a year after he was re-elected. There is no room for negotiation and no chance of success. It is purely a stunt, an act of guerrilla theatre. Mr Boehner was part of the House Republican leadership under Mr Gingrich. He was ousted in 1998, survived and was resurrected as party leader years later. One might have thought he had learned some strategic lessons from all that.

It would have been great sport to watch if Mr Boehner had decided to gamble this time and take on so-called "wacko bird" conservatives. If he put together a coalition of more mainstream Republicans and Democrats, there would have been a classic intra-party feud, but there would not have been a shutdown.

It isn't written in stone that Mr Boehner would have lost his speakership after that battle. Perhaps a victory could have shifted the paralytic partisanship in the House today.  Ironically, chances are high Mr Boehner will have to cave eventually and team up with Democrats to avoid an economically irresponsible - and politically lethal - default on government debt obligations. That will probably save his job, but it certainly won't make his job any more fun.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP- Barack Obama and John Boehner in White House