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