As the government shutdown of 2013 stretches into its third day, one Washington activity that’s still running full speed is blame-throwing. Democrats say the current sorry state of affairs was caused by Republicans, while some Republicans say the problem is Democrats. Others in the GOP complain bitterly that the conservative tea party faction has led its own party off a cliff.
Here’s another thought: What if the whole thing is George Washington’s fault?
OK, we’re using the Father of the Country as a symbol here, but it’s not too far a stretch. Before he was the young nation’s first chief executive, Washington was a Founding Father and the president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. And some scholars today are claiming that the current US political predicament stems from flaws in the Constitution itself.
It’s a “crisis that demonstrates that presidential democracy sucks,” writes Scott Lemieux, assistant professor of political science at The College of Saint Rose, on the academic blog “Lawyers, Guns & Money.”
Look, before you grab your musket and fife and drum and come after us, just listen to the explanation, OK? We understand that forebears and founding documents are venerated in the United States as in few other nations. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect. We’re talking here about details, not the idea of America itself.
The problem is our old friend checks-and-balances. James Madison et al. wanted a government in which power is diffused and tyranny averted. They designed a system in which a president and two chambers of a legislature are elected separately, yet must govern at the same time. When a dispute arises between these branches, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved,” wrote the late Juan Linz, a distinguished Yale professor of political science, in a 1990 paper titled “The Perils of Presidentialism.”
In other words, the current standoff is a feature of US democracy, not a bug. There’s no direct method whereby President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner can force the other to capitulate.
“They can point fingers and wave poll results and stomp their feet and talk about ‘mandates,’ but the fact remains that both parties to the dispute won office fair and square,” writes Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, explicating Professor Linz’s ideas.
That would not be the case in a parliamentary democracy such as Britain. In Britain, the head of government holds office because of the support of the majority of a one-chamber legislature. (Basically, the House of Lords does not have much power at this point.)
When a prime minister loses the support of his or her parliamentary majority, there’s a no-confidence vote, followed by either a new parliamentary coalition and new governing cabinet, or a national election to let the people decide.
The US system is not really majority rule. A parliamentary system is.
“[I]n a parliamentary democracy a minority party by itself couldn’t force a crisis or cause the government to collapse,” Professor Lemieux writes.
That said, there are certain aspects of the current US crisis that aren’t structural, in the sense that they aren’t written in the Constitution. Most notable here is the upcoming vote on raising the debt ceiling.
That’s just a function of the way Congress has designed its own budget and spending system. But given the importance to the US and world economies of America paying its already-incurred debts, the debt ceiling vote is a “dangerous toy” that’s been lying around waiting for someone to pick up and use, according to Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.
In recent years, minority parties have increasingly turned to such unorthodox tools in an effort to slow or reverse policy change, Professor Masket writes on the political science blog “Mischiefs of Faction.”
State legislative recalls are on the rise, for instance. In the US Senate, the use of the filibuster has increased.
“These are the tools of a frustrated minority party in an era of polarized parties," writes Masket. "When a majority party is advancing an agenda that the minority party finds unacceptable (as is almost inevitable when the parties are so ideologically distinct from each other), the normal methods of disagreement will begin to seem insufficient.”
The House Republican leadership now believes it has a winning strategy for the government shutdown crisis – or if not a complete path to victory, at least tactics that will lead to short-term gains in public opinion for the GOP and that will pressure Democrats to open negotiations aimed at resolving the standoff.
Speaker John Boehner’s new playbook revolves around something Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas suggested earlier: Break up the big government spending bill and try to fund popular programs and agencies with mini-continuing resolutions (CRs).
The virtue of this approach from the GOP point of view is that it could put pressure on Democrats – particularly Senate Democrats – by forcing them to take difficult votes on items such as health care for military veterans. It also unites the fractious Republican House caucus. Tea party conservatives approve, because none of the bills in question would fund operations related to "Obamacare." Other GOP House members see the strategy as a simple move forward.
“The leadership knows this course won’t be easy to hold, and, as ever, any day in the House GOP can be unpredictable. But they’re going to keep at it, knowing conservatives will only tolerate so much, and crossing their fingers that [Senate majority leader Harry] Reid shares the blame and, if pricked in certain spots, starts to bargain,” writes National Review’s Robert Costa.
Meanwhile, the opening round of the GOP's latest approach came Tuesday, when the House leadership brought three mini-CRs to the floor. They would have funded the Veterans Affairs Department, the national parks, and city services in Washington, D.C. (Those still subject to federal appropriations, did you know that?)
These bills lost. They’d made it to the floor under expedited procedures that meant they needed a two-thirds vote to pass, which is a high hurdle. Many Democrats from safe blue seats voted against the mini-bills, despite an impassioned plea from D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton that they at least pass the funds for her city.
The House leadership has vowed to try these and other small measures again Wednesday under regular rules, so that the bills can be approved with a simple majority. In that scenario, they’re likely to pass. Then they’ll be sent to the Senate – in all likelihood, to die.
Senator Reid has made it clear he’s not tempted by the prospect of ending the shutdown one bill at a time. That’s because he sees the tactic as a way to open popular parts of the government, lessening pressure on Republicans, while allowing the GOP to still hold hostage some parts of the government, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and discretionary Obamacare funds.
In any case, President Obama has vowed to veto the mini-bills.
“Consideration of appropriations bills in a piecemeal fashion is not a serious or responsible way to run the United States Government. Instead of opening up a few Government functions, the House of Representatives should re-open all of the Government,” said the White House in a statement released Wednesday.
Does the GOP approach stand any chance of success? As Mr. Costa notes, Republicans hope the drip, drip mini-bill approach will put continued pressure on swing- and red-state Democrats worried about taking votes that will damage their standing at home. If Democratic unity cracks, goes the thinking, then party leadership will begin looking for a negotiated exit.
The problem for Republicans is that right now their party is the one showing cracks. A number of Senate Republicans have no stomach for a fight tying continued government spending to defunding or delaying implementation of the Affordable Care Act. A small number of House GOP moderates have said publicly that they’d support a continuing resolution funding the entire government.
In the face of this disarray, Reid has so far found it easy to hold Senate Democrats together to swat back everything the GOP-led House has sent him so far.
Plus, now that the government is already shut, it may be too late for such legislative maneuvers to register on public opinion as a whole.
It’s possible that the piecemeal strategy will give Republican strategists ammunition to use against individual House or Senate lawmakers in 2014. (“Your Democratic congressman voted to deny health care to veterans!”) But Republicans' larger problem at this moment is that they need to direct more of the blame for the current state of affairs to the White House and Democrats as a whole, according to polls.
In that context, the mini-bills may be too little, too late: clever but arcane tactics undertaken at a point when a news tsunami about the shutdown and its effects will overshadow them.
“It’s very possible public perceptions of a protracted standoff will be shaped less by details of the budget debate and more by already existing perceptions of which side is more committed to constructive governing,” writes left-leaning pundit Greg Sargent on his "Plum Line" blog at The Washington Post.
The Government Shutdown of 2013 is on. A congressional dispute over whether Obamacare should be defunded or delayed as a condition of continued government funding has forced some 800,000 federal workers off the job. One by one Washington agencies are turning off the lights, rolling down their shades, and shutting the doors.
How long will they be closed? How long will the shutdown last?
No one can answer those questions with complete assurance. But taking past such confrontations into account, the conventional wisdom is that the shutdown either ends very quickly or will stretch at least seven days.
“Feels like if there isn’t a resolution today, then we’re probably looking at a shutdown thru the week, possibly merging w/debt ceiling 10/17,” tweeted NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd on Tuesday morning.
The quick-end scenario depends crucially on House Speaker John Boehner’s intentions. If all he meant to do was placate tea party conservatives by forcing the Obamacare dispute just past the point of a government shutdown, proving he’d stand with them longer than many pundits had predicted, well then, mission accomplished.
Indeed, some House Republicans on Tuesday said it was time for Speaker Boehner to fold. Rep. Scott Rigell (R) of Virginia tweeted, “We fought the good fight. Time for a clean CR,” meaning time for a funding bill without any provision that would alter the Affordable Care Act.
As of midday Tuesday, hope for a quick end to the dispute was fading, however. Tempers still seemed hot and rhetoric was pointed. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the House demand for a conference committee to discuss terms of continued government funding. In response, prospective House conferees held a photo-op that consisted of them sitting across from some empty chairs. “That’s not how adults operate,” said President Obama of House Republicans during a midday Rose Garden appearance.
The last time the government shut down, things began with a five-day federal work interruption in November 1995, followed by shutdown that stretched from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996.
Considering that experience, the current shutdown could stretch for some time.
“I’m projecting that the shutdown will last at least a week because it will take that long for the impact of the shutdown to start to be felt and, therefore, to make ending it more politically acceptable,” writes Stan Collender, a veteran federal budget expert and Qorvis Communications executive, on his "Capital Gains and Games" blog.
Federal agencies won’t be fully shuttered until the middle of the week, says Mr. Collender, who as a congressional staffer helped write the laws governing the modern congressional budget process. Voter frustration at lack of government services won’t hit until week’s end. Then it will abate a bit on Saturday and Sunday.
On Monday voters will face the full reality: They can’t apply for a passport, camp at Yellowstone, get an answer to a Medicare question, or – crucially – get paid if they are a government contractor.
“This is the point at which there will start to be real pressure on members of Congress as the impact of the shutdown finally hits home for many people and the prospect of lost wages and less business becomes a reality,” writes Collender.
Meanwhile, right-leaning Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was urging House Republicans to stand pat for at least a week, and possibly until Oct. 17, when Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling if the US is to pay debts already incurred.
Mr. Kristol compared the current US political situation with a game of blackjack. House Republicans “have a hand they could easily make worse by panicking, and which could be good enough for a win or draw if they keep calm.”
Boehner should send members home to their districts for a few days to get them out of the Washington bubble and hear the voices of their constituents, who may feel few effects of the shutdown, according to Kristol. Meanwhile, Boehner and the rest of the GOP leadership should start to think about how they’ll play their cards in the coming debt ceiling fight.
Many economists believe a standoff on the debt ceiling that leads to inaction would damage the US economy much more than a government shutdown. That’s because the prospect of Uncle Sam reneging on his debt might cause international financial markets to freak out, perhaps spiking interest rates.
In his Rose Garden appearance Tuesday, Mr. Obama said he would have more to say about a possible breach of the debt ceiling in the days ahead.
“It would be far more dangerous than a government shutdown, as bad as a shutdown is,” said Obama.
If the government shuts down at midnight Monday – as now seems likely – the effects on the US economy and political system could be profound. In fact, 2013 might be the most consequential shutdown ever, surpassing the impact of the Bill Clinton/Newt Gingrich standoffs of 1995 and 1996.
For one thing, the economy today is much softer than it was in the mid-1990s. Back in ’95, the Federal Reserve’s biggest worry was that the go-go years had gone too far and the economy was in danger of overheating, resulting in an inflation spike. So the Fed hiked interest rates, cooling things down at the end of year.
That produced a “soft landing” from which growth of US gross domestic product took off in ’96. GDP growth was 4.7 percent for the second quarter, after the brief shutdown period was over. Overall GDP growth for the year was about 3 percent, and unemployment fell to 5.4 percent.
Nowadays, the jobs picture is much bleaker. Unemployment is 7.3 percent as the economy continues to struggle to recover from the Great Recession. Second quarter GDP growth was 2 percent, and economists are predicting a 2013 GDP rise of 1.5 percent, or a bit higher.
So a shutdown this time would hit an economy that’s easier to push off its feet. For each week the government is closed, fourth quarter GDP would shrink by 0.2 percent, according to Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS/Global Insight in Lexington, Mass. A lengthy two-month shutdown would probably push the United States back into a recession, according to Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi.
Second, a government shutdown might reshape the modern Republican Party. That’s because the ongoing political struggle over how to fund the US government and whether to defund or delay Obamacare is a very untraditional political battle. It has the usual component of a Republican versus Democrat fight, but the more important front may be Republican versus Republican, as tea party conservatives push for a confrontation that establishment Republicans don’t appear to want.
The question is how far House Speaker John Boehner will go in adhering to tea party preferences. To this point, he has shown willingness to back down in the face of opposition from his conservative wing. He would have preferred a clean funding bill to keep the government open, but instead has brought to the House floor versions of the bill that would defund or delay Obamacare, ensuring their doom in the Senate.
Unlike previous speakers, Representative Boehner does not appear to believe that making the government work is part of his job description if doing so conflicts with the will of his conference, writes Caitlin Huey-Burns at RealClearPolitics.
“One thing has become clear over the past three years of divided government and so-called crisis governing: As speaker, Boehner is changing the definition of a representative government,” she writes.
A third and related point is that the impending government shutdown, if it occurs, could reflect a change in the role of political minorities in the US legislative process.
We’re defining “minority” here in the context of the branches of the US government. The GOP controls the House, while Democrats have the Senate and White House.
As Democrats point out, House Republicans are now attempting to reverse or slow a law (the Affordable Care Act) that was duly passed by majorities of both chambers of Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010. The House GOP has linked its effort to the must-pass omnibus spending bill in an attempt to overcome the fact that the other side has more votes, in the sense that the Senate and White House count as two to the GOP’s one.
Provoking a fight that could lead to a government shutdown over a law that’s not directly related to the bill at hand is an escalation of Mr. Gingrich’s 1995 tactics. Gingrich and President Clinton were (mostly) fighting over the levels of spending in the government funding bill itself.
Will this set a precedent for future conflicts where one congressional chamber wants to do something that the other chamber and the president reject? That will depend crucially on the outcome of the current partisan standoff, of course. And for Democrats who think only tea party adherents would push things this far, consider this thought experiment: Would their party not fight as hard to defend Obamacare as conservative Republicans are fighting to repeal it?
The atmosphere in Washington is now so poisonous that the Senate chaplain opened Friday’s session with a prayer that in essence called for a higher power to step in and end ongoing partisan fiscal strife.
“Keep us from shackling ourselves with the chains of dysfunction.... Lord, deliver us from governing by crisis, empowering us to be responsible stewards of your bounty,” said Chaplain Barry C. Black.
That may yet come to fruition. In the meantime, disputes between the conservative and establishment wings of the Republican Party and between the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate remained so intense that governing by crisis appeared a likely possibility.
This is not a budget-battle-as-usual. Washington is currently engaged in “a high-stakes showdown that is playing out in a climate of chaos, infighting and unpredictability that is extraordinary even by congressional standards,” according to Alan Fram of the Associated Press.
That’s led some commentators to opine that it’s time for Washington to just go over the ledge, already. Get it over with. Shut down the government or breach the debt ceiling. Like Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy Professor Moriarty, perhaps the two parties should close for a final struggle and plunge over Reichenbach Falls.
“With apologies to Nike, maybe it’s time ... to stop threatening and ‘just do it,’ ” writes Todd S. Purdum in Politico Friday.
Purdum was referring to House Republicans in particular. They’ve engaged in brinkmanship by making the defunding of Obamacare the price of funding the government past Sept. 30, in this view.
But the Senate on Friday rejected that linkage, voting along party lines to strip the legislation of the Obamacare defunding clause and send it back to the House. House GOP leaders appear uncertain how to proceed.
If Speaker John Boehner stands his ground, a government shutdown is probable, if not certain. The dire fiscal and political effects of this might “break the fever” and give Boehner more leverage over the conservatives in his caucus who are insisting on the defund-Obamacare provision.
Or you can take the other side – it’s the Democrats whose fever might break. A shuttered government and plunging stock market might convince President Obama to move off his maximalist position and agree to delay, cuts, or other changes in his signature domestic health law.
In both cases the point is that the shock of a bad scenario might clarify the situation and ensure that this fiscal standoff won’t be repeated in months and years ahead.
“Mightn’t it be better to let the crash happen, if only so the reconstruction can start?” writes Purdum.
Others argue that a shutdown of the government Oct. 1 would be a small price to pay if it convinces Congress to raise the debt ceiling later in the month.
Boehner and other House GOP leaders would prefer a debt ceiling showdown, in large part because they believe it is an issue on which they have more leverage. Shutting down the government by not approving a spending bill would be unpopular with voters, according to polls. But raising the debt ceiling? Polls show voters generally agree that should be tied to debt reduction.
The problem is that many economists think breaching the debt ceiling would be much, much worse for the economy than shutting down the government. It likely would result in the US reneging on debts already incurred, which might freak out world financial markets.
Thus it would be bad if Boehner succeeds in getting his caucus to focus on the debt ceiling, write Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. Conservatives would be even more likely to focus on confrontation since they might feel they had not stood up and fought on the continuing resolution authorizing government spending.
“Accepting a [government] shutdown for a much lower likelihood of a debt-ceiling breach might be a good trade,” they write.
Then there are those who think even a debt default would be a good thing if it means neither party would ever again use a debt ceiling vote as a means to try and extract concessions from the White House.
Though it would be better for the House GOP to just go ahead and agree to raise the debt ceiling, for President Obama the “next best option is to refuse to negotiate the debt ceiling, allow default, and never have to go through it again. Bargaining merely postpones, and worsens, the next default crisis,” writes Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine.
Given the mood in Washington it’s unfortunate but true that it is likely the US will find out if any of these theories are correct.
House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday he would agree to raise the nation’s debt ceiling before the federal government hits its credit limit on Oct. 17, but only if Democrats agree to delay implementation of Obamacare for one year.
Though still in the formative stage, the House GOP’s debt bill right now would also authorize construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, permit more energy exploration on federal lands, block federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, establish a timeline for comprehensive tax reform, limit medical malpractice suits, and raise the cost of Medicare for wealthier Americans.
“We’re going to introduce a plan that ties important spending cuts and pro-growth reforms to a debt limit increase,” said Speaker Boehner at a press conference with GOP leaders.
Remember, the debt limit is a separate issue from the government spending bill that’s now in the Senate and is about to be pinged back to the House, shorn of a provision that would defund the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) for good.
The spending bill would authorize appropriations to keep the government open. It’s not yet clear whether Congress will be able to pass such legislation before the US fiscal year ends at midnight Monday.
The debt limit bill would allow the feds to continue borrowing money to pay for government spending that Congress has already approved, as well as for future outlays.
The debt ceiling is in fact the more important deadline, according to many economists. They worry that financial markets would freak out if the US appeared close to reneging on incurred debts.
But Boehner has tried to get his GOP caucus to make its stand on the debt bill, not the spending one, in large part because he believes it is an issue on which Republicans have more leverage. Shutting down the government by not approving a spending bill would be unpopular with voters, according to polls. But raising the debt ceiling? That’s something on which voters generally agree with the GOP position.
For instance, a just-released Bloomberg poll found that 61 percent of respondents agreed that “because Congress lacks discipline on spending ... it is right to require spending cuts when the debt ceiling is raised even if it risks default.”
Given that, will Democrats be willing to go along with Boehner’s yet-to-be-unveiled debt bill?
As you might imagine, right now the answer is “no,” particularly given the number of items Boehner appears willing to attach to the debt legislation.
“The more the list of demands grows, the less likely it is that Obama and Dems will ever agree to negotiate over any of this,” writes left-leaning pundit Greg Sargent at his "Plum Line" blog at the Washington Post.
The White House has consistently rejected the notion of negotiations over the debt ceiling, saying it is up to Congress to live up to its constitutional duty to pay the bills it has approved. On Thursday President Obama personally singled out the issue of a possible one-year delay in Obamacare, saying he would not accept any delay in the program’s taxes, mandates, or benefits in exchange for a debt ceiling hike.
“The closer we’ve gotten to the [Oct. 1 Obamacare implementation] date, the more irresponsible people opposed to this law have become,” said Mr. Obama at an appearance at a community college in Largo, Md.
Yet opposition to Obamacare is one of the few things that unifies Boehner’s fractious GOP caucus. With defunding dead, House Republicans are turning to smaller steps, such as the one-year delay or repeal of an Obamacare tax on medical devices, in an effort to limit a health law they insist is bad for the nation.
How will these positions be reconciled? That’s the $64,000 irresistible-force-versus-immovable-object question.
If a new Gallup poll is to be trusted, tea party fatigue has firmly set in among the American public.
The survey, released Thursday, indicates that 22 percent of Americans support the tea party, which anchors the conservative wing of the GOP. The number marks a 10 percentage point drop from the movement’s peak in the wake of the Republican Party’s 2010 takeover of the House of Representatives.
Whether it is tea party loyalists’ relentless drive to upend President Obama’s health-care initiative, or, more generally, the near-constant intraparty bickering that has divided the Republican Party, the numbers reflect relatively high public dissatisfaction with the tea party's push for conflict over compromise.
RECOMMENDED: Tea party politics
Of course, Congress is not scoring much better in polls these days, and its reviews provide a view of lawmakers’ performances across the political spectrum.
But it appears there’s something to this latest Gallup poll, conducted Sept. 5-8.
“The poll suggests that the partnership between the Tea Party and the Republican Party may be waning,” writes Lydia Saad, a senior editor at Gallup. “Although some of the Tea Party’s most visible representatives in politics today are associated with the Republican Party, and while rank-and-file Republicans are more likely to call themselves supporters than opponents of the Tea Party movement – a far greater number identify as neither.”
For so long, Washington has been plagued by gridlock, delay, and distraction. Liberals blame the tea party for its role. So, apparently, do many Republican Party stalwarts, including Arizona Sen. John McCain (R). Just this week Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, the tea party darling, occupied 21 hours of uninterrupted floor time in a faux filibuster of the president’s health-care plan, known as the Affordable Care Act. He did so even though his stand had no legislative ramifications and was against the wishes of his Republican colleagues. Senator McCain and others took him to task publicly for the display.
Score one, perhaps, for Senator Cruz as he raises his national profile and woos members of the conservative base – think of his "filibuster" as a grand gesture to caucus and primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in advance of a likely 2016 presidential run. But Cruz might gain personal points at the expense of his party’s public review, and with the latest survey, it appears the public, too, has begun to tire of this confrontational approach, a tea party hallmark.
“The discomfort he has created in the Republican caucus is merely emblematic of the ambivalence national Republicans feel toward the movement,” Ms. Saad writes.
Just 38 percent of Republicans polled said they back the tea party. That’s down from 65 percent in November 2010, according to Gallup.
Similarly, the poll notes that “just as Republicans are mixed in their views of the Tea Party, Tea Party supporters themselves have mixed views about the Republican Party.”
A slight majority of tea partyers polled, 55 percent, offered a favorable review of the GOP, compared with 43 percent who had an unfavorable view. Republicans, by contrast, rated the establishment party more favorably, with 80 percent supporting it and 19 percent giving it unfavorable marks. (It's worth noting that the poll was taken before Cruz's theatrical display this week, so it's hard to know if the media attention paid to him would change tea party sentiment toward the Republican Party or vice versa. Gallup, though, is asserting a connection between Cruz-like tactics common to many who share his beliefs and the public's growing dissatisfaction with the tea party generally.)
So who stands to benefit from all this strife? Some believe establishment Republicans are missing the mark if they think the tea party’s influence is on the wane or that liberals are getting a boost from the seeming disarray within the GOP – no matter what the poll numbers say. They see individuals such as Cruz as standing for principles advocated by the grass roots, rather than kowtowing to the rules of decorum in Washington.
“A little disruption of the status quo in Washington seems like the only reasonable thing to do, and We the People have been populating Congress with a growing group of principle [sic] leaders who are committed to fighting for us no matter how many feathers they ruffle in the process,” writes Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, on the Fox News website. “So now it’s Them versus Us, and the grassroots are proud to stand with the good guys, unpopular as they may be inside the Beltway.”
Others see dissent as a thin guise for boosting personal brands at the expense of party unity in a closely divided Washington, according to The New York Times.
“I love their vigor and their spirit,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma, referring to the tea party Republicans who are butting heads with party leaders. “But to be told we’re not listening by somebody who does not listen is disconcerting.”
The New York Times article notes that several senators see grass-roots enthusiasm as a big bust if the party can’t win elections come November.
So Gallup might be recording a tea party weariness, but Democrats, in particular, must be watching the friction on the other side of the aisle with rapt attention – and probably some measure of glee. That's because, whether the conventional wisdom dictates that the tea party is flailing or resurgent, the mere distraction of tea party members' fight serves to reinforce a perception that Republicans can’t find a point of consensus from which to govern.
RECOMMENDED: Tea party politics
Ted Cruz’s 21-hour talkathon is now history. It didn’t stop the Senate from opening debate on a House-passed bill to keep the government open past Monday. Senators almost certainly will vote to strip out a provision in that bill that would defund Obamacare. That’s what Cruz said he wanted to prevent, so did he really accomplish anything with his sort-of-filibuster?
Yes. He accomplished a lot.
First, the obvious: the freshman Texas senator has made himself a folk hero for the Republican right. He went onto the Senate floor a contender for the crown of tea party favorite. He came back a star. As we wrote yesterday it’s now possible he’s bested Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and other contenders to become the leader of grassroots GOP conservatives, at least for the moment.
Second, he proved he’s no Sarah Palin. Though he was spelled by a few Senate allies, Cruz carried the bulk of the talkathon himself. Whatever you think of his politics, it’s hard to deny that he was articulate, dramatic, even entertaining at times as he discussed everything from his love for White Castle hamburgers to “Star Wars.” Palin and Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, another tea party favorite, are both much better at prepared remarks than extemporaneous speech. Can you imagine Palin speaking in pearly prose for almost a day?
“The freshman Republican senator’s 21-hour pseudo-filibuster was an immensely stylish endurance stunt – a feat made all the more impressive by the rhetorical fluency that did not flag,” writes right-leaning commentator John Podhoretz in the New York Post.
Third and last, Cruz burned his bridges with much of the Washington establishment Republican Party, then took the ashes and buried them and dumped more dirt on top.
As many commentators have noted, Cruz’s target in his Tuesday-to-Wednesday chin wag was as much the Republican Party as Democrats. He lambasted “symbolic” votes against Obamacare while hitting those in the GOP who accept the inevitability of Obamacare implementation as akin to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and others who tried to appease Hitler prior to World War II.
Republican Senate leaders have been exasperated with Cruz for weeks, considering him a publicity-hungry freelancer whose efforts to court the conservative grassroots could damage the party with the US electorate as a whole.
“Ted Cruz is testing the consequences of ticking off everyone in Washington all of the time,” writes Alexander Burns in Politico today.
What will Cruz do next? He’s thrilled the GOP base with his willingness to confront adversaries, as did Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primary campaign. But Gingrich lost, as did fellow insurgent candidates Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, et al. Actually winning the nomination in 2016 may require reconstruction of some of those burned bridges – or a tea party takeover of the GOP.
“Win or lose, the battle is now joined: First the struggle for the GOP and then the battle for control of Congress and the presidency,” writes Michael Walsh in a pro-Cruz, anti-establishment National Review Online piece.
Nearly three and a half years after the passage of the nation’s sweeping health-care overhaul, Obamacare is set to go online next Tuesday with new, federally mandated health insurance exchanges – a key provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Uninsured individuals nationwide must either find an affordable plan to purchase by the end of the year, or pay a tax penalty.
That's why the Obama administration's release, on Wednesday, of a comprehensive summary of the average health-care premiums that private insurance companies will offer next week on these exchanges, or state “health insurance marketplaces,” drew immediate scrutiny.
According to the summary released by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the average monthly premium for a mid-level health plan on these exchanges will be $328 – about 16 percent below projections.
But this average premium number can be very misleading, since it is a weighted average for the entire country, experts say, based on some of the cheaper plans offered by the exchanges. Indeed, the rates provided by the summary give a dizzying array of premiums, varying widely according to age, region, and family size – as well as the kind of plan purchased.
The federal government will support or fully run the private insurance marketplaces of 36 states, with 11 other states currently choosing to run their own. For those exchanges run by the federal government, there are an average of 53 plans and premiums per state to choose from, and an average of 8 carriers providing these plans, and competing for enrollees. Some areas, however, will have as few as six plans, and some will only have a single carrier to choose from – another significant regional variance.
In Minnesota, the average monthly cost for the cheapest plan is $144, while a similar plan in Alaska costs an average of $385, according to the HHS summary. A mid-level plan in Arizona, by contrast, costs an average of $252 a month, while a similar plan in Wyoming costs $516.
And Obamacare provides for four different levels of plans, organized into platinum, gold, silver, or bronze – with an additional, bottom-basement “catastrophic plan” added for young adults and some others. The more expensive “platinum” plans will cover 90 percent of health-care costs, while the least expensive “bronze” plans will cover 60 percent of costs, which means a consumer choosing these plans must pay out-of-pocket for the remaining 40 percent.
But according to the Affordable Care Act, these out-of-pocket costs would be capped at $6,350 for individual policies and $12,700 for families. These caps were delayed until 2015 by the Department of Labor in February, however, which could put a strain on those who purchase these plans and incur medical bills next year.
There is one more significant wrinkle to these numbers, however: The federal government will give tax credits for low income buyers who do not qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. Of the estimated 41.3 uninsured Americans who must purchase coverage by Jan. 1, 2014, 18.6 million of these will be eligible to receive TAX credits, and about half of them will see monthly premiums less than $100, according to HHS.
An average 27-year old making $25,000 a year in Texas, for example, could pay as little as $83 a month for the lowest cost plan. A family of four making $50,000 a year in Indiana would only have to pay $46 a month for the lowest cost plan, and a similar family in Alaska wouldn’t have to pay anything. Tax credits are available to individuals and families who make up to 4 times the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).
But some experts see potential problems with these numbers. The individual market for health insurance is notoriously difficult to price, because only those who become sick tended to pay for this insurance in the past. Obamacare makes it illegal for carriers to reject a customer who has pre-existing conditions.
“I think there’s a lot of confusion out there, and I think the problem is, these carriers don’t know what their pool is going to be, so it’s hard for them to really price it at this point,” says Mark Isenberg, a partner with Zotec Partners, a nation-wide medical billing company headquartered in Carmel, Ind. “Because if you have all these different levels, and I’m a healthy 30-year-old, and I know it’s a yearly plan, I’m going to opt for the cheapest plan.
“But if I’m really sick and I know I’m going to be really sick, I’m going to opt for the entire plan,” Mr. Isenberg continues. “So you’re going to have a lot of top-heavy risk pools associated with it, so I don’t think their actuaries have a firm handle on what their actual costs are going to be on these plans.”
Yet the Obama administration projects that 7 million Americans will join the health-care rolls in 2014 – including 2.7 million young and healthy consumers who are essential to the Obamacare logic: The young and healthy are needed to offset the high costs of sicker members.
Hence the tax penalties or “shared responsibility fee” for those who do not join. The health-care law will cost uninsured individuals who do not purchase insurance on the exchanges $95 per person per year in 2014, or 1 percent of personal income. This will jump to $325, or 2 percent of personal income in 2015, and $695 or 2.5 percent in 2016.
“My expectation is in 2015 and 2016, we’ll see a greater number of people moving to the exchanges,” says David Oscar, communications chair of the New Jersey Association of Health Underwriters. He doesn’t believe very many of the young and healthy will opt to buy insurance from these exchanges, especially now when paying the penalties is so much cheaper than buying insurance.
Yet the 11 million people eligible to receive subsidies, says Mr. Oscar, who manages the plans of about 2,000 small- and mid-sized businesses, as well as about 500 individuals, will probably visit the online marketplaces and purchase coverage.
“The small business owner, the mom and pop shop that only shows $50,000 of income – they’re going to go to the individual plans [on the exchanges] because, from what it looks like, the individual plans are, on the surface, better looking than the current individual plans,” he adds.
Ted Cruz and John McCain are both Republican senators, but they’re far from collegial. There is something about freshman Cruz’s aggressive style of politics that does not sit well with McCain, who’s been a member of the Senate club for some 26 years.
It was Senator McCain, angry at Senator Cruz’s battering of ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel during Hagel’s confirmation hearing to be secretary of Defense, who labeled Cruz and his allies “wacko birds.” A new GQ profile of Cruz quotes an anonymous McCain adviser as saying that the Arizona senator “hates” the Texas newcomer.
“He’s just offended by his style,” this aide tells GQ.
Now the angry veteran of GOP politics is after Cruz once again. This time, it’s about a reference to appeasement of Adolf Hitler that Cruz made during his epic 21-hour fili-talkathon against Obamacare on the Senate floor.
This came during a long section in which Cruz was talking about times in history when “pundits” said things could not be done, but then they were.
For instance, during the Civil War, there “were a lot of voices who said the Union cannot be saved,” Cruz said, but it was.
Then came the Nazi part.
“If we go to the 1940s, Nazi Germany – look, we saw it in Britain. Neville Chamberlain told the British people: Accept the Nazis. Yes, they will dominate the continent of Europe, but that is not our problem. Let’s appease them. Why? Because it can’t be done. We cannot possibly stand against them,” Cruz said.
At this, McCain took umbrage. Why? Well, for one thing, umbrage and McCain are well acquainted. For another, it’s because this seems like a reference to the GOP Senate establishment, which disdained Cruz’s talkathon against Obamacare as a waste of time. Democrats control the Senate, in this view, and President Obama will veto anything that defunds his signature health law achievement.
“I resoundingly reject that allegation. That allegation, in my view, does a great disservice. I do not agree with that comparison. I think it’s wrong,” McCain said on the Senate floor shortly after Cruz’s speech ended.
McCain went on to say that Cruz had told him he was speaking only about talking heads, but McCain wasn’t buying it. “I find that a difference without a distinction. I find that something that I think I have to respond to,” McCain said.
So he continued responding, saying in essence that to compare the two situations was pretty objectionable, considering. Left unsaid was the obvious point that as a war veteran and former POW, whose grandfather commanded US naval air forces at Guadalcanal and whose father captained a World War II sub in the Pacific, McCain does not think comparisons between the legislative process and Hitler should be made too easily.
He did say that the voters had the chance to consider Obamacare in 2012 – and the GOP nominee lost.
“The people spoke: They spoke much to my dismay. But they spoke, and they reelected the president of the United States,” McCain said.
Given that McCain took to the floor shortly after Cruz left it, his words were something of a purposeful slap in the face. Cruz’s conservative supporters replied in kind.
“Beltway barnacle McCain’s longevity is NOT admirable. It’s a bane,” tweeted right-leaning pundit Michelle Malkin.
Plus, McCain’s animosity is unlikely to weaken Cruz’s position in the GOP firmament, since McCain is the definition of Republican establishment and Cruz is a leader of the insurgent tea party wing of the GOP.
In fact, it’s possible McCain’s anger could actually strengthen Cruz, since it shows the Texas senator can get under the skin of someone whom the populist tea party wing considers a virtual Democrat.
“It’s fun for Dems when McCain lights into Cruz, but no Republican’s criticism does more to endear Cruz to the base,” tweeted Slate political analyst Dave Weigel.