There is a method to the madness in Congress. What the country is witnessing is not simply the normal partisanship that accompanies a two-party system of electoral democracy. The rhetoric is familiar, but the roots are more pernicious and the remedy more demanding of citizen attention and action. The resolution of the crisis is unknown at this writing, but here is what has gotten us to this point in our nation’s politics.
First, the madness that we are all witnessing is the threat of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to fail to pass a budget and to default on the public debt. Ostensibly their righteous cause is to force the government to reduce spending, but most of the great increase in federal spending occurred because of the war in Iraq and the Great Recession, which was the worst financial crisis in eighty years, while the shortfall of revenue is related to the huge Bush tax cuts and the poor economic performance of the 2000’s: the annual deficit reached $1 trillion for the first time under George W. Bush. But the annual deficit has rapidly declined as the economy has slowly recovered. As for the debt, these are obligations that have already been incurred by the Congress; so, what the Republicans are proposing is to welch on their own promises. The strategy is obtuse and potentially very expensive for the taxpayers and all citizens: a shutdown will cut economic growth and disrupt public services while a default will put the credit worthiness of the U.S. at risk and raise interest rates. The Republicans say they want to avoid these outcomes, but they made a long list of impossible demands: defund the Affordable Care Act or postpone paying for the first year, approve the Keystone pipeline, restrict lawsuits for medical malpractice, permit employers to decide whether health insurance will cover contraception for women, fast-track permits for oil and gas drilling (in the middle of an oil and gas boom), roll-back EPA rules on greenhouse gases, de-fund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, cancel the insurance fund to cope with future financial crises, and means-test Medicare benefits.1
Why is this happening? The House Republicans and Sen. Cruz claim that Obama has forced the shut down and default because he refuses to negotiate the end of the Affordable Care Act. Cruz: “The only reason we might have a government shutdown is if Harry Reid and President Obama insist upon a government shutdown”.2 Joel Pollack: The showdown is about the “effect millions of households are facing, as of Tuesday, in new insurance costs, lost coverage and limited work opportunities”. 3 But the factual basis for these claims simply is not there. The evidence we have is that insurance rates will be lower for most people who go to the new insurance marketplaces and there is no evidence that jobs have been lost because of the ACA. Their oft-stated claim that the American people oppose the ACA is highly exaggerated. Texas’ two Republican Senators claim that Americans oppose the ACA: “We hope… Reid will listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans who do not want Obamacare”. 4 “What we are doing … is fighting for 300 million Americans across this great country”. 5 But they are wrong about public opinion. Many of the specific features of the ACA are very popular – no denial of insurance for pre-existing conditions, keeping adult children to age 26 eligible for family coverage – and overall about a third are critical of the ACA, a third favor it, and about a quarter aren’t sure. Among the critics, about a quarter want the government to do more, not less. Major polls in the past week show no more than 39% support for defunding the ACA.
The method behind the crisis is that the House Republicans get this wrong not out of ideological fervor, but out of institutionally created ignorance. Their constituents are strongly opposed to President Obama and the ACA, but their constituents are not representative of the American people. While Obama won the election nationwide, the 80 Republicans who signed a letter demanding the defunding of Obamacare were elected in mostly rural and small town districts that voted for Romney by over 60%. These same districts have become increasingly white while the rest of the country has become more diverse.6 Many of these districts were created by Republican gerrymandering to protect the Party against the rising tide of diversity. Texas of course gained four Congressional seats because of its growing Hispanic population, but the Republican Party managed to create districts that blocked Hispanic voters from punching their true weight. In Michigan where in 2012 Obama won by 8.5%, the Republicans carried 9 of 14 Congressional seats; in Wisconsin where Obama won by 6.7%, the Republicans won 5 of 8; in Pennsylvania where Obama won by 5%, Republicans carried an amazing 13 of 18 House seats. In these and three other states where Obama won in 2012, districting enabled the Republicans to carry 64 of 94 Congressional seats! And in North Carolina where Obama lost 49 – 51, but the Democrats won a majority of the votes for Congress, the Republicans still managed to take 9 of 13 seats. These tactics probably sent an extra 30 Republicans to the House, which was enough to give the Party control by 232 to 210, even though nationwide the Democrats won 1.5 million more votes for Congress than the Republicans. This de-linking of the popular vote and Congressional representation has given the minority party control despite losing the vote and it has upset the normal operations of government. The 80 Republican Obamacare de-funders are only a third of the entire Republican delegation and, of course, very conservative Republicans would be elected to Congress regardless of gerrymandering, but these unrepresentative members would not be so numerous as to allow the “tail to wag the dog” of Congress.
This institutional construction of outsize Republican power helps explain why House Republicans misread public opinion and make unreasonable demands on the rest of the government. They have the confidence of individuals who talk only to people like themselves, as indeed they do. They live in splendid isolation in their manipulated districts, consult news sites that repeat their views back to them, justify their misreading of the facts of budgets by citing conservative policy mills like the Heritage Foundation, and get financial support from ideological groups like the Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Tea Party Patriots, funded by the energy billionaire Koch brothers.
Republicans style themselves as principled leaders, but their holy cause is to deny access to health insurance to millions of our fellow citizens, including 2.6 million uninsured Texans plus 10.7 million Texans whose pre-existing conditions previously made getting insurance prohibitively costly.7 When dozens of Republican state legislatures refused to set up the on-line health insurance markets where citizens can shop for a policy, the federal government was obliged by the law to set up the exchanges for these states, but House Republicans refused to allocate funds to pay for them. Then, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did create the exchanges and assigned staff to help citizens use them, state Republicans (in Texas, Missouri, and Florida) acted to block the staff from offering that help by prohibiting state officials from cooperating with them or by requiring them to become licensed insurance brokers. Senator Cruz explained the broader stakes when he compared the benefits of Obamacare to sugar. He fears that Americans will like the benefits and learn the lesson that democratic government can help them solve their problems.
The resolution of the crisis is unclear as I write, but it will be messy because the structure of representation has created undue power for the overweening Republican caucus and they aren’t going away soon. Yet Obamacare is being implemented; it will not be stopped by the shutdown tactic. As for the debt, the best of bad alternatives is for President Obama to ignore the debt ceiling if the Congress won’t legislate and simply carry out the spending and taxing policies already passed by Congress, as Michael Dorf and Henry Aaron recommend, although the White House says it won’t do this. The longer-run solution would get rid of the debt ceiling rule, take districting decisions out of the hands of partisans, and establish national voter registration to enroll every citizen automatically so that no votes are suppressed. Our national election day could become a holiday to celebrate the expression of every citizen’s right to be counted equally in the making of our laws.
- 1 The New York Times 9-27-13.
- 2 San Antonio Express News 9-28-13.
- 3 Editor of Breitbart News 9-30-13.
- 4 San Antonio Express News 9-21-13 quoting Cornyn’s office.
- 5 San Antonio Express News 9-29-13uoting Cruz.
- 6 National Journal 3-15-13.
- 7 San Antonio Express News 9-28-13.
Polls reprinted from The Huffington Post.