On to the Next Crisis: Why Congress Learned Nothing From the Shutdown

The crisis is over, but political dynamics suggest congressional dysfunction is here to stay

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner walks to the House floor for a vote on fiscal legislation to end the government shutdown, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Oct. 16, 2013

The governing crises that ended on Wednesday night depressed consumer confidence and drove the Republican Party’s ratings to all-time lows. Yet after 16 long, depressing days, one corner of the U.S. Capitol was brimming with hope as the standoff sputtered to a close.

“I hope we have learned not to do this,” said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. “I hope we have learned our lesson.” Across the ornate hallway outside the Senate chamber, his colleague Johnny Isakson, the junior Senator from Georgia, made a similar attempt to frame the episode as a teachable moment. “The long-term impact,” he says, “is this will probably never happen again.”

Don’t bet on it. It may be a while before the GOP again shutters the government in a flight of fantasy or drags the U.S. this close to economic calamity. But the political dynamics that produced the debacle suggest the dysfunction is here to stay. In fact, Congress is likelier than not to repeat the epic clash mere months from now, before government funding expires once again on Jan. 15.

The reason can be found in the political landscape. “The first instinct of many politicians is self-preservation,” Democratic Congressman Rob Andrews tells TIME. Surgical gerrymandering has produced a wealth of safe seats. A substantial faction of House Republicans, who hail from deep-red districts and have only the threat of a primary challenge to fear, could care less that the party’s disapproval ratings have skyrocketed to record highs. Their quixotic quest to gut Obamacare was what their constituents wanted. “I don’t think anybody believes that if you stand and fight on principle, you lose,” said GOP Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona.

(MORE: Obama Signs Bill to End Government Shutdown, Avoid Default)

Salmon, and the cadre of Republicans who dragged Boehner into a fight the Speaker preferred to avoid, believe the American public is with them, and the President’s position is untenable. They see the health care fight not as a teachable moment, but as a clarifying one. They fulfilled a campaign promise to their constituents by going to the mat against a law they cast in apocalyptic terms.

This is the opposite of the lessons that many Republicans were hoping the GOP’s fractious factions would learn from the episode. “For the party, this is a moment of self-evaluation,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. “If we continue down this path, we’re going to really hurt the Republican Party long term.”

But the strain of pragmatism that produced a bipartisan deal in the Senate hasn’t infected the purists in the House. Even the members who admit they lost the battle are eager to keep fighting the war. “The battle lines remain the same,” says Louisiana Representative John Fleming, a Tea Party Republican who held court in a dingy basement corridor, encircled by a scrum of reporters. “If you think about it,” he added, “we fought this thing to a stalemate. Obamacare remains intact. So do the sequester caps. I think both sides wind up kind of where they began.”

The Obama Administration, which eschewed negotiations in a bid to end government by hostage taking, is under no illusions that they have eradicated the practice. “What odds do we set on cooperation and bipartisan compromise in the future?” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asked rhetorically. “I don’t think we would put odds on that.”

In fact, the White House isn’t holding its breath for the fever to break, an Administration official tells TIME. Asked on Wednesday night whether he feared a replay of the current crisis in just a few months, the President replied: “No.”

“Hopefully next time it won’t be in the 11th hour,” Obama said. “We gotta get out of the habit of governing by crisis.”

(VIDEO: What Happens If the U.S. Defaults? TIME Explains)

For Democrats, of course, the episode paid political dividends, and party leaders are apt to maintain their hard-line stance. If the GOP is hell-bent on hanging themselves once more, one line of thinking is that the Democrats should go shopping for rope. This is, in fact, what many House Republicans suspect Obama is intent on doing. “It’s a winning strategy for the President” to embrace budget brinkmanship, says GOP Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, since Republicans draw the blame.

The debt and budget crises failed to alter either party’s policy positions, or reveal new ground for compromise. Republicans haven’t acquired a taste for taxes. Boehner has not agreed to put revenue on the table in discussions with the White House. Most congressional Democrats aren’t keen on the entitlement reforms that the GOP will be seeking during the broad budget negotiations to come.

In the meantime, personal relationships have iced over. Obama and Boehner haven’t spoken personally since Friday, when the President spurned the House GOP offer, and the Tea Party’s dislike for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid may even outstrip its distrust of Obama. “As long as Harry Reid is majority leader, I don’t think we’ll ever return to regular order,” says North Carolina GOP Representative Richard Hudson.

There are other grim omens. Financial markets that fluttered in fear in 2011 held steady this time, and the resolution of the crisis could make them grow ever more jaded to congressional dysfunction, making it harder to build pressure in the future. The outside groups that control fearful conservatives are already vowing to punish the heretics who voted for the deal. “A complete surrender with presents for the Democrats,” the conservative group FreedomWorks declared.

The House hard-liners may have dug themselves into a trench of irrelevance, but they aren’t going anywhere. Republican strategist Rick Wilson tells TIME the shutdown would have “almost no consequences for either 2014 or 2016.” That may or may not be right; on a national level, the GOP appears badly damaged at the moment. But with 13 months until the midterm elections, a wealth of safe seats and a second-term Democratic President with shaky approval ratings, history suggests the GOP is likely to retain control of the lower chamber.

So while the shutdown fight may be the nadir of congressional dysfunction, things aren’t getting better anytime soon. “It was already pretty bad. I think over the last few weeks it has gotten worse than it was,” says Republican Congressman Kevin Yoder of Kansas. “Until the President and leader Reid and the Speaker can negotiate solutions, it’s going to be very difficult. We’re going to be stuck in the same position.”

— With reporting by Alex Rogers and Zeke J. Miller

MORE: Everything You Need to Know About a Government Shutdown

162 comments
mandycat
mandycat

Regardless of how you view the Affordable Care Act (the ostensible reason for the last shutdown) politicians attempting to get with brute force what they couldn't get through either the legislative or the judicial process is a bad precedent, if not downright unpatriotic.

Oh, wait. I keep forgetting:  Republicans have a direct phone connection to the ear of God, so anything they do is ordained by Heaven, unlike the wicked heathens opposing them.

Jax
Jax

So let the Republicans hang themselves (politically).  I don't think it will teach them anything.  I don't think they will learn their lesson.  But maybe, just maybe, there will be less of them in the House or Senate as people go to the polls and cast their votes next election.  Many, many years ago, I voted with the Republican Party.  But not the Republican Party that they have become.  And the comment that the politician made regarding, if you stand on principal long enough, you won't lose.  That is only if you work for the Government, not if you are a constituent of the Government.

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

The Dems have an approval rating of 31%. Nothing to brag about.Funny how none of the Dems posting here mention that. Like I said no winners in this battle according to the majority of Americans.

jmac
jmac

Fox news has certainly learned nothing as it eggs on the wingers in Congress.  Jay Carney was hammered today on Benghazi until he finally told the reporter "I'm aware that we're creating an exchange here for Fox news."  Issa is keeping up his waste of government money by trying to link the president to anything, anything, that will lead to possible impeachment.   It's almost almost as if Fox has doubled down since this embarrassment of the animal they created.   Even the one semi-sane newscaster, Greta, has gone to the gutter.  

It's not going to end unless they lose seats in the midterm. 

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

Just because Obama and his friends, including many of he posters here, say the words doesn't make them true. Slowly the majority of Americans are beginning to figure this out.  

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Of course they have learned nothing even as we speak former car thief and arsonist Darrel Issa is holding a hearing on why Federal Parks and Monuments were closed during a federal shutdown. I guess the part about all non-essential parts of government will be shutdown by the GOP actions escapes his feeble, criminal mind.

BradleyCraigeByers
BradleyCraigeByers

Voters who supported Koch-and-tea party candidates also learned nothing. Check out this online response from the all-Republican state of Oklahoma. See "Love for Slavery" at ByersAware.blogspot.com

grape_crush
grape_crush

> “For the party, this is a moment of self-evaluation,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

Just like it was after Obama's re-election...right, Senator? It's not as if y'all will make a lot of mouth noises about doing a gut check and trying to find a soul for your party before blowing off that necessary bit of painful introspection and change in behavior in favor of plotting your next act of sabotage, is it?

Because that's what has happened over the past year, Senator. And you yourself will change your tune quickly enough when you are threatened with a serious primary challenge from even further from your own right.

It's going to take a combination of changing demographics, further government shutdowns, and economic collapse brought on by more debt ceiling brinksmanship or just plain bad 'conservative' policy to get red state voters to start treating you Republicans like you have the Black Plague.  And you do. Y'all are the walking dead, oblivious to the state of their own existence but still clinging to some semblance of life.

The past 30 years of 'conservative' policy have been exercises in how to fail the bulk of the American people. Your ideas are largely unworkable and suck, and y'all tend to fulfill your duties as representatives and senators in the most a*hole-ish ways possible.

So quit with the whinging about how GOPers need to step back and re-evaluate themselves. I call BS. You're not sincere.

jmac
jmac

". . . why Congress leaned nothing. .. "  Darrell Issa was holding hearings during the shut down to get to the bottom of why the National Park Service had  closed the National memorials during the shut down.     He subpoenaed the NPS Director to testify to find out if Obama was behind the closings.  (Subpoenaed!) 

Impeachment still on the table?  The New Benghazi?   The 2014 election is important.  Had Issa or any of a 100 other Republicans been majority leader, we and the world would be in a world of hurt right now.   The press needs to help turn the spotlight on these committee heads.  It's important.  

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"Apparently, the media didn't learn from the experience, too."

It would be hysterically ironic if it weren't so tragically ironic (Shakespeare weeps). You see, "Congress Learned Nothing From the Shutdown." Not the Teatard Caucus, which is really what the article describes. Congressional Democrats learned, moderate Congressional Republicans learned. Can Alex Altman and TIME's editors be so dumb? Apparently the only possible answer is, yes, yes they can. And the nation suffers.

shapiro.len
shapiro.len

@paulejb liberals and conservatives are labels without meaning. tea partyers are anarchist, or reactionaries, at best. Mitch McConnell got a 2 billion dam project in Kentucky for his "negotiated" compromise. He must be an FDR New Dealer. GW Bush created the Medicare part D,for drugs, ran up the biggest public debt ever, spent Clinton's surplus and gave billions to Africa to fight aids.

so who are the liberals? if you like the one percenters so much,you must be one of them. if you aren't,you are just an a===hole.

jmac
jmac

@paulejb Benghazi!   Impeach him!   

Please.  Please start impeachment before the mid-terms.  Please.  

jlbrown1101
jlbrown1101

@jmac Too bad the family members that lost there children there don't agree with you.  They were told by the president there would be an investigation with someone held accountable nd they would be the first to know what happened.  Sorry, but that is not true and just because Jay Carney said something that it is true.

jmac
jmac

@Fastgirl Republicans are down to 20% approval in the polls, the Tea Party is down to a handful of wingers and even conservative Republican commentators are hoping Republicans lose the House;   so your are right, slowly the majority of Americans are beginning to figure this out.  

paulejb
paulejb

@mantisdragon91 

The memorial shutdowns, which were unprecedented, were orchestrated by the White House to inflict the greatest pain possible.

paulejb
paulejb

@BradleyCraigeByers

Obamunism is less slavery than the creation of a class of serfs, Bradley. It amazes me how many of you libs sign on for serfdom.


allthingsinaname
allthingsinaname

@shepherdwong  

What do you expect? Have you not been reading what they write? They have;  that is why they are so ignorant. Just like the TEA Party they inform themselves.

paulejb
paulejb

@shepherdwong 

Wong represents every depraved Obamanista with his use of the term "Teatard." Wong believes that political correctness only applies to suckers who work for a living.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@paulejb : Reality check:

Republicans have turned the National World War II Memorial into the government shutdown’s poster child.

But there’s one big problem with their protest: Veterans streaming into Washington to see the monument don’t really face any obstacles in their visits, and many complain that they are being used for political gain....

“We’ve had no problems at all,” said Jim McLaughlin, a lead organizer for the Honor Flight Network, the nonprofit group drawn into the dispute when several GOP lawmakers accompanied its guests during their first visit to the memorial hours after the shutdown started....

The Honor Flight Network also hasn’t made any changes to its flight schedules — many of the chartered aircraft were reserved weeks or months in advance, including several groups of veterans who arrived Tuesday from Arizona, Texas and Missouri.

Source: Is GOP spin on angry veterans true?

grape_crush
grape_crush

@paulejb@mantisdragon91 > The memorial shutdowns, which were unprecedented

"News archives from the start of the last federal shutdown in late 1995 offer conflicting accounts of what was closed in Washington at the time.

Some attractions like the National Zoo and the Smithsonian museums were closed. But news stories from the time conflict about whether sites like the Lincoln Memorial were closed.

A Dec. 16, 1995 story from the Associated Press said "tourists were free to … touch the walls of the Vietnam Memorial and climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to read the Gettysburg Address."

However, a Dec. 19, 1995 story by the Miami Herald's Washington bureau described the Lincoln memorial as 'locked up.'"

-and-

"During a joint committee hearing, the Republican congressman asked NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis why protesters associated with Occupy Wall Street were allowed to camp in McPherson Square in 2011 but World War II veterans were not allowed to visit open-air monuments amid the government shutdown.

Jarvis told Gowdy that D.C. parks and memorials must close during a shutdown under the Anti-deficiency Act, which prohibits federal employees from spending money that has not been authorized by Congress.

But Gowdy continued to ask for a specific statute that required the government to close memorials during a government shutdown.

National parks closed during the Clinton-era shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. The parks also closed during a brief government shutdown in October 1990.'

jmac
jmac

@paulejb @BradleyCraigeByers  paulejb - a lot of people commenting are former Republicans.  They are people who now call themselves 'Independents' or people like me who switched over.     You're party is down to 20% approval rating and we can see why from your comments.  YOU are the one who has hurt your party.  It's hanging on by a fingernail and you're not helping by posting.  Keep up the good work.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

@paulejb @shepherdwong 'Teatard" sort of implies that they act out of ignorance. Since they don't a more accurate pejorative would be "Treasonous scum"


S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@paulejb : Unlike Ted Cruz and the Tea Party wing of the House, who even today are unable to recognize a losing strategy.

PS: It's nice to see that you back (really); Swampland has been pretty dull recently without comment from the unhinged right.

paulejb
paulejb

@S_Deemer @paulejb 

Obama may be spiteful but he is not stupid. He knows a losing startegy when he sees one so he had his stooges quickly back off the Vets.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb @mantisdragon91 @jason024 And you never let reality get in the way of your lies. Do I really need to pull the old Reagan tapes our they are still there, along with national security archives and Oliver North's testimony.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

@paulejb @mantisdragon91This testimony?

Midway through his opening remarks, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, held up a small blue-edged hand mirror. "If those Republican colleagues will look at me, I will show you who's responsible."



paulejb
paulejb

@shepherdwong @paulejb 

Fair or not, the state of the nation is considered to be the responsibility of the president by the public. That applies even if he is an absentee landlord that is never around when the roof leaks or the lights go out,

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@paulejb "75% of the nation believes Obama has us on the wrong track."

That poll doesn't say a word about President Obama, you miserable, lying, cretin (in boldface). But, based on your source, the President is more than 30 points higher than the Congress in approval ratings so "the nation," unlike Teatards like you, apparently knows who's to blame for government dysfunction.

http://realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/president_obama_job_approval-1044.html

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/congressional_job_approval-903.html

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@jason024    "The GOP has been claiming America will fall apart since Obama's election in 08..."

And Clinton before him, and Carter before him, and Johnson, and Kennedy (not to mention the Democratic candidate who didn't win). They are paranoid hysterics, that's why their political rhetoric is so ridiculous.

jason024
jason024

@paulejb @jmac @BradleyCraigeByers The GOP has been claiming America will fall apart since Obama's election in 08....guess what America is just fine. Heck it was slowly getting better before the idiots in Congress decided to shut everything down.

paulejb
paulejb

@jmac @paulejb @BradleyCraigeByers 

I am sure you are concerned over the fate of the Republican party, jmac. Spare us your angst. You too have to live in the 3rd world cesspool that Obama is creating of a once great nation.

paulejb
paulejb

@grape_crush @shepherdwong @PaulDirks 

If you people had your way, every Downs Syndrome child would have been slaughtered in the womb, grape. That is why libs feel free to mock the mentally challenged.

grape_crush
grape_crush

@shepherdwong@PaulDirks ; I could easily use a more pejorative term or phrase.

Easily. It's not as if people with Down's Syndrome commit such callous and blatantly nasty acts on the scale that Teabagger politicians do.

paulejb
paulejb

@shepherdwong @PaulDirks 

You could say that the Tea Party represents the heroes of the American revolution but what would you know about that, Wong?

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@PaulDirks Paul is right. I could easily use a more pejorative term or phrase. The possibilities and absolutely accurate condemnations are almost endless. But their self-identification, combined with their bottomless ignorance and self-righteousness make the more moderate choice easy.

paulejb
paulejb

@jmac @PaulDirks @paulejb @shepherdwong 

Since liberals all believe that history only began on January 20, 2009 they are unaware of the origin of the Tea Party. 

Liberals range from low information to no information.

paulejb
paulejb

@PaulDirks @paulejb @shepherdwong 

Another Obamanista chimes in on the acceptability of libs mocking the mentally challenged. These OFA storm troopers are not just politically incorrect they are also thugs.