Column: Itching for a showdown
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — House Republicans, in their final days at work before taking a five-week vacation, have come out with a new agenda: “Stop Government Abuse.”
A more candid slogan might be: “Stop Government.”
This is traditionally one of the busiest weeks of the year, when the House rushes to complete the dozen annual spending bills so that the Senate can pass them before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. But there is no hurry this time. Instead of taking the lead on spending bills as the House traditionally does, lawmakers are instead proceeding with bills such as one “guaranteeing a citizen’s right to record conversations with federal regulators.”
That legal protection for recording devices might be a fine idea. But the real “government abuse” is what the House itself is doing: Only four of the 12 appropriations bills have cleared the chamber as of this writing. And because the House plans to be in session just nine days in September, that guarantees that government finances won’t be in order in time for the new fiscal year.
House Republicans aren’t even trying to get the job done — which would seem to confirm the suspicion that they are precipitating a crisis.
The budget and appropriations processes have been a mess in recent years under both parties’ control, and there was no expectation this year would be different. But this time the slow walk serves conservatives’ singular purpose of undermining Obamacare. Because the appropriations won’t be completed by Oct. 1, Congress will have to pass a temporary extension, or “continuing resolution.” This kitchen-sink measure gives House Republicans the power to shut down the federal government if President Obama doesn’t agree to their demands — particularly the repeal of health care reform.
On Monday, leaders of influential conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, Heritage Action, Family Research Council, FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform sent a letter to House leaders begging for a donnybrook. “The best and last chance for House Republicans to stand up and thwart this law before its new entitlements kick in is during the upcoming funding debate,” they wrote, “and the House should live up to the moment and pass a bill funding the government but denying any funding for Obamacare.”
Newcomer Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., who is pushing for a shutdown showdown, spelled it out on Andrea Tantaros’ radio show: “We need 41 Republicans in the Senate or 218 Republicans in the House, to stand together, to join me” in saying that “we will not vote for a single continuing resolution that funds even a penny of Obamacare.” Cruz has since taunted “scared” Republicans who oppose his idea and dismissed as “cocktail chatter” the notion that a government shutdown would be a bad move for Republicans.
Happily, a number of Senate Republicans have called that idea daft. But it’s a different matter in the House, where the obsession with rolling back Obamacare takes on yet another form Friday with a vote on a bill blocking the Internal Revenue Service from implementing the health care law. In that sense, the lack of urgency with which the House is handling the spending bills makes perfect sense: It gives Republicans another swing at Obamacare. So what if economic chaos is a side effect?
“‘Irresponsible’ is a term that doesn’t go nearly far enough,” says Norm Ornstein, the American Enterprise Institute scholar who has become a scold of congressional Republicans. “You could say it’s a do-nothing Congress, but that doesn’t do justice to it. These guys are doing something, which is to destroy the economic fabric of the country by holding the functions of government hostage to a non-negotiable demand to eliminate Obamacare.”
In a sense, the inaction on spending is just another sign of the dysfunction in the chamber that has prevented negotiations on an overall budget framework, put bipartisan immigration legislation on ice and created a standoff on the farm bill that will, if not overcome, cause milk prices to jump to as much as $8 per gallon next year. But provoking a government shutdown would take things to a whole new depth.
A shutdown is unlikely to achieve the goal of repealing health care reform; Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., one of the top political minds in the House, cautions his colleagues that shutting down the government would be a “suicidal political tactic.” Polls suggest the same.
But such calculations assume the shutdown crowd cares about the politics or the chance of success. For them, “stop government” is more than a slogan; it’s a way of life.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.