Will a Government Shutdown Chill Congressional Republicans Out? No

Optimistic commentators think closure could keep the country from breaching the debt ceiling. But there's no reason a few stubborn House members can't provoke both.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Updated, 12:04 p.m., September 29

A government shutdown looks inevitable: The House passed a resolution early Sunday morning to fund the government through mid-December while delaying Obamacare's individual mandate for a year, a proposition Senate Democrats find unacceptable and President Obama has vowed to veto. It's hard to see how this gets resolved before Tuesday, when the government runs out of cash.

But hey, maybe it's for the best! That's the argument made by a rash of commentators, who argue that a government shutdown might actually be a good thing.

Todd Purdum in Politico: "Maybe it's time for the House Republicans to stop threatening and 'Just do it.'" Joshua Green in the Boston Globe: "I’m rooting for a shutdown and you should be too — at this point, it’s the safest way to jolt Washington back to its senses." Matt Yglesias in Slate: "A little government shutdown isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it’s much better to have this fight now rather than entertain months of herky-jerky crisis." Noam Scheiber in The New Republic: "If Boehner resigns himself to a shutdown ... suddenly the future looks manageable." Ezra Klein in the Washington Post: "It looks like we may have a shutdown after all. And that may be a good thing." Republican lobbyist John Feehery: "Maybe it’s time to ... lance the boil and to shut down the government for a while."

The basic argument all these writers make is the same: A shutdown, while unpleasant, would be less unpleasant than the default that would likely ensue if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling by mid-October. Why would shutting down the government make a default less likely? The idea seems to be that once House Republicans realize how badly the public is reacting to the chaos they've caused, they'll see the error of their ways, dispense with the theatrics, and start acting sane.

"As Republicans' poll numbers collapsed and they hemorrhaged blood all over Washington," Scheiber writes, Boehner's call for more sensible action would gain legitimacy. "The demoralized conservatives will realize they’re out of moves — at least in this particular battle — allowing Boehner to raise the debt limit a few weeks later with little drama. There will be no debt default, and no conservative coup in the House."

This is certainly possible, but it seems unlikely. The majority of House Republicans already want to prevent a shutdown and a default. But there's a small group that insists on defunding Obamacare as an ultimatum, and they are not likely to be placated by a little government shutdown. Many believe that the government shutdown of 1995 either didn't hurt Republicans politically or only hurt Republicans because they gave in rather than standing firm. Some also believe that the supposedly catastrophic consequences of hitting the debt ceiling are overblown, like Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, who recently told Politico, "Technically, it’s not possible to default," and if the debt ceiling is reached, "nothing happens." (Confronted with economists' predictions of large-scale catastrophe, Fleming told the New York Times, "Economists, what have they been doing? They make all sorts of predictions. Many times they're wrong.")

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Friday dubbed these intractable Republicans "the weird caucus." To their opponents, they appear unreasonable, but what they really are is very, very sincere: They truly believe that, by committing to do anything to block a law they see as disastrous, they're standing up for what's right. That's not going to change because the Republican Party's poll numbers, already in the toilet, slip a little more, or because their constituents complain about closures of national parks. The Republicans who care about those things are already willing to pass government funding and debt-ceiling bills. But there aren't 218 of them.

The idea that a shutdown will somehow convert these holdouts is a version of the "break the fever" theory that Obama espoused during his campaign: that once he was reelected, antagonistic Republicans would see which side the public was on and agree to compromise. That didn't happen; if anything, they redoubled their efforts to thwart him, egged on by outside groups.

Earlier this week, Boehner sought to rally his caucus around a proposal to raise the debt ceiling while enacting a laundry list of unrelated Republican agenda items. Though liberals mocked this as an absurdity, the hard-core minority of House Republicans regarded it as too much of a concession. Senator Ted Cruz urged them not to go along, and it was taken off the table Friday. I asked a staffer who works for a (non-weird-caucus) House Republican whether a government shutdown would be enough to change these members' minds. "No, we like to suffer," the staffer replied. "We like to beat ourselves. And then we go back to the base and they give us another task to beat ourselves on, and we forget how we beat ourselves the last time."