Why Boehner and Republicans Don't Want a Government Shutdown

By Chris Good

Don't buy into the latest round of brinksmanship. If lawmakers follow their own political interests, they'll fund the government.

Boehner McConnell debt deal - Jonathan Ernst Reuters - banner.jpg

The Congress that cried wolf is at it again.

This week, Republicans and Democrats are haggling over a bill to keep the government funded until Nov. 18, after three epic partisan stalemates within the last nine months -- over the Bush tax cuts in December, keeping the government funded in April, and raising the national debt limit in early August.

Should we worry about this latest partisan showdown?

No.

A few things have changed since those fights. Both Republicans and Democrats are beginning to demonstrate some behavioral plasticity, to borrow a term from evolutionary biologists, adapting to the new environment of constant crisis. Washington's political ecology is beginning to shift.

In previous stalemates, Republicans have seemed to enjoy a bargaining advantage, exploiting Democrats' relative unease with halting government services. While House Speaker John Boehner warned in April that a shutdown would be irresponsible. In August, it was Obama who harped on the specific consequences, like Social Security checks not getting mailed out, if a debt-limit deal was not struck. Now, Ezra Klein writes, some Democrats are warming to the idea of a shutdown:

... Democrats ... worry that Republicans have become too accustomed to legislating through fiscal brinksmanship, and the only way to reset the budget process and end these constant threats of shutdowns and defaults is to let a shutdown actually happen and show Republicans what that means for them, both economically and politically.

Republicans, meanwhile, have calculated that a stubborn image isn't helping them. They've decided to play nice, Dana Milbank points out. After giving a warm and conciliatory initial response to Obama's latest jobs plan, the typically unyielding House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has poured mostly bipartisan sugar from his Twitter account of late, Milbank notes.

Shutdown brinksmanship doesn't benefit any political player -- it's a race to the bottom. After the debt-limit compromise, more Americans disapproved than approved of how the stalemate was handled by all of the key players: President Obama, congressional Republicans, and Congressional Democrats.

Polls have shown that the stalemates have been worse for Republicans, even as they've claimed policy victories by extracting spending cuts in tough negotiations.

After the debt-limit stalemate in August, a CBS poll found that 72 percent of respondents disapproved of how Republicans had handled the negotiations, while 66 percent disapproved of Democrats and 47 percent disapproved of Obama. After the April shutdown stalemate, 54 percent disapproved of how both Republicans and Democrats handled those negotiations, while 45 percent disapproved of how Obama handled them, according to CNN.

Now, Republicans are losing support on a signature issue, reducing the deficit. A Pew Research Center released Monday found that confidence in the GOP on handling the deficit has slipped from 47 percent in May to 35 percent, while 62 percent have little or no confidence. Those numbers suggest that Republicans' deficit strategies aren't working as well politically as they had hoped.

Republicans and Democrats haven't yet worked out their present dispute over whether or not to offset disaster aid with unrelated spending cuts. But if we believe that both sides will act in their own political interests, and that there's reason to believe they're starting to, then there's little reason to fear that the federal government will actually grind to a partisan halt.

Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/09/why-boehner-and-republicans-dont-want-a-government-shutdown/245696/