It's always been hard for me to avoid the sneaking suspicion that it would be nice if Congress went out of business, a sentiment that has probably been harbored by more than a few Americans over the decades as they listen to the bombast emanating from the purlieus of the Capitol. Mark Twain, an acidulous observer of the Gilded Age that our own mirrors, observed, "Suppose you were a member of Congress and suppose you were an idiot; but I repeat myself." For the most part it does things that are idiotic. It's a place where people get to do things that are bad with impunity, a frat house for baby boomers. They get to spend money they don't have, pass laws that they more or less exempt themselves from, enjoy staffs that tell them how wonderful they are, and lecture the rest of us about how patriotic and upstanding they are, and so on. Apparently last night both Democratic and Republican legislators were even hitting the sauce heavily.
Well, why not? America definitely has a bit of the Titanic feel to it these days. If President Obama and Congress can't reach agreement in the next few weeks, then America's standing and reputation are going to take a severe hit around the world with both severe national security and economic implications. A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal editorial page referred to the idea of a government shutdown as a "kamikaze" mission. Whatever historical analogy you choose, things look increasingly perilous. Right now, the Capitol, you could say, is not that capital.
For weeks the action, or inaction, has been in Congress. The standoff over funding the government has not been between the evanescent President Obama and the House Republicans. Instead, it has been between Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner. If this were a tennis match, then Reid would receive points for smashing back the serves that Boehner has half-heartedly lobbed at him and for relegating Obama to the bleachers. Throughout, Boehner's sepulchral smile has suggested his own lack of confidence in the political line he is representing. Indeed, the latter has not been doing a very good job of selling the shutdown he helped engineer, stalking off last night after curtly answering two questions from reporters.
Reid and other Democrats sidelined Obama. They were convinced that he would be too conciliatory in any negotiations. Meanwhile Boehner, whose heart was never in the shutdown, saw his troops maintain their discipline about as effectively as the Democrats did in the Senate. Now it is up to public pressure, including Wall Street and the business community, to try and force a way out of the impasse. WIth the debt-ceiling crisis looming, the stakes could hardly be higher. A failure to raise the debt ceiling to pay for bills that Congress has already contracted could lead to a worldwide recession or worse.
For many pundits the real existential crisis resides in the GOP itself. Michael Gerson says that "conservatives now face the ideological temptation: inviting an unpleasant political reality by refusing to inhabit political reality." Riven by a battle between its Tea Party and establishment wings, the GOP is in turmoil. And Boehner shows no signs of possessing the political aptitude to reach some kind of truce. The Wall Street Journal has it right:
Some Republicans think they are sure to hold the House in 2014 no matter what happens because of gerrymandering, but even those levees won't hold if there's a wave of revulsion against the GOP. Marginal seats still matter for controlling Congress. The kamikazes could end up ensuring the return of all-Democratic rule.
So Boehner's real fear must be that the GOP is inadvertently resuscitating Obama's presidency by giving him an enemy to fight against. The commander-in-chief has not been very commanding these days. But that could change. It was the Soviet propagandist Georgi Arbatov who announced at the end of the Cold War, "we are going to do the worst thing we can do to you. We are going to take your enemy away from you." He had a point. For the coldly practical path for the GOP to have followed would be the one outlined by George F. Will:
Arithmetic, not moral failings, makes Republicans unable to overturn Obama’s vetoes. So after scoring some points, Republicans should vote, more in sorrow than in anger, to fund the government (at sequester levels, a significant victory) and to increase the debt ceiling. Having forced Democrats to dramatize their perverse priorities, Republicans can turn to completing the neutering of this presidency by winning six Senate seats.
So far, there are few signs that the Will doctrine is going to prove palatable to House Republicans. But now that the shutdown has actually taken place, the pressure will increase persistently like a deep-sea diver gradually descending into the depths. Perhaps the crisis will force a reckoning. For the good news is that the twin crises confronting the U.S. could be resolved by a grand budget deal. Boehner and Obama already came close once. Both sides know what is needed. And both have been resisting it. A measly two-month continuing resolution is not the appropriate forum for a battle over the direction of a superpower. If they can reach a deal, Congress would doubtless refuse to abolish itself as part of it. But maybe lawmakers could give everyone a break by going on a long vacation.