In the standoff over the partial federal government shutdown and the debt limit, the dominant question has been: Who is to blame? The media consensus is the House Republicans, driven by the Tea Party. This conclusion is further evidence, if any were needed, that when the mainstream media reaches a quick consensus, it is time to look twice.
In one sense, no one is to blame. Congress is entrusted with the power of the purse, but must get the president’s signature on spending and revenue legislation. The majority of the House of Representatives believes strongly that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, is a legislative abomination, unlikely to achieve any of its promises (including more affordable care), but certain to reduce quality of care for most Americans. They also expect it to add $2 trillion in unaffordable entitlement spending over the next decade, to cost tens of thousands of jobs, and to threaten the liberty of the American people by increasing dependency and giving federal bureaucrats unprecedented control over the lives of individuals. It is, in their view, a giant step toward fastening a European-style democratic socialist state onto Americans, never to be undone once it is consolidated, no matter how thoroughly it fails. To make matters worse, they believe the ACA was passed through a combination of dishonest messaging, unsavory back-room deals, and strong-arm tactics that ultimately succeeded in ramming the bill down the throat of an unwilling nation. Consequently, that House majority has attempted to use its constitutional power of the purse to force repeal, delay, or revision of the ACA.
On the other hand, the President and the majority of the Senate remain committed to the ACA, believing it to be a major advance toward a more progressive and just society. They have insisted on retaining the ACA unaltered.
Accordingly, the House has been unwilling to pass all the appropriations necessary for government to operate without some concession on the ACA, while the President and Senate have been unwilling to make any concession on the ACA.
Unless one makes a prior assumption that the ACA is sacrosanct and properly beyond debate, it is rather difficult to see in this picture that blame would rest solely, or even primarily, in the hands of the House Republicans. And given the already apparent multitudinous flaws in the ACA, it is rather difficult to contend that it should be left unaltered. The picture is better seen as a dispute between two sides which are divided by deeply-held convictions, representing a nation that is also deeply divided.
If one finds it unsatisfying to apportion blame equally, it is worth noting that it is President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, not the Republicans, who have refused to negotiate. Originally, the House passed a bill funding the whole government except for Obamacare. When the Senate rejected it, causing government to shut down, the House passed a new bill funding government but delaying Obamacare for one year (a delay supported by 57 percent of Americans) and eliminating the unpopular medical device tax. When the Senate rejected that compromise, the House passed another bill funding government but delaying for a year only the Obamacare mandate requiring individuals to buy insurance or pay a fine. When the Senate rejected that compromise, the House began passing smaller appropriations bills to fund portions of government such as national parks and medical research. Democrats rejected this approach as well, preferring to keep the entire government shut down to maximize their political leverage. Indeed, the administration went out of its way to make the shutdown more painful (for example, barricading the open-air World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.), in a display of vindictiveness rarely seen even in Washington. Hope and change, indeed.
In a broader sense, it is predictable that things would come to this. The President came to office promising to “fundamentally transform America,” and took advantage of unusually large Democratic majorities in Congress in 2009 and 2010 to push through a highly ideological and highly partisan program. The ACA, which passed without a single Republican vote in either house of Congress, was the centerpiece of that program. As President Obama has learned, chickens have a tendency of coming home to roost. Victories won through raw muscle and false advertising do not produce settled law. The President has spent his presidency, and this crisis, belittling his opponents, unable to process the possibility that intelligent people of good will might disagree with him, and acting as if he meant it when he complained last spring that the problem was that “I’m not the emperor of the United States.” He may win this battle, but his own ideological crusade all but guarantees that the war will go on.
Andrew Busch is the Crown Professor of Government and a George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College.