Gameday in Washingtoon


Another year, another showdown over the budget. This time the threat is a trifecta, a showdown over shutting down government, defunding Obamacare, and a default on the Federal Debt by not raising the debt ceiling. The stakes could not possibly be higher – and yet just about no one outside of Washingtoon wants to be in this game in the first place. How did it get to this?

First of all, this is about the Republican Party and absolutely nothing else. Boehner and the leadership had to prove their mettle to more vocal Tea Party members if they wanted to have a chance to keep their positions. But there is little doubt that even if they win the greater party outside stands to lose the most in this game. For the rest of us, all we can do is hope that nothing stupid winds up happening.

First of all, it’s not really a game unless we run down the odds. No one gives Obamacare defunding a chance of succeeding at all, making it pretty obvious that this game is about something else. The odds of a shutdown are generally considered to be higher than a default, given how stupid the latter is, but both are pretty dumb. The odds of a shutdown range from 1:9 to 3:1 depending on who you ask, but the default is generally considered only slightly more likely than defunding Obamacare.

Also, there isn’t an actual “budget” that is being debating, only another “continuing resolution” that will keep spending more or less as we have been since 2009. Congress still hasn’t done their share of the work, regardless of how much they gripe.

So if this is really all about the possibility of a shutdown, what can be gained from such an event? The short answer is that there is no reason to believe that 2013 is much different from 1995-96, when the public punished the Republican House severely. Many people will (temporarily) lose their jobs, payments will not be made, and general chaos will ensue.

The Republican House is willing to make that gamble in large part because of a few polls that show that defunding Obamacare might be a big win for them after all. Voters seem to believe that Obamacare will increase health insurance costs, despite considerable evidence that it will lower it. How we arrived at this situation is unclear, but the Republicans do have an opening that they hope to exploit.

However, a prolonged shutdown is not going to play well with anyone if it comes to that. There could be some serious trimming of the budget that comes out of this showdown, which the Democrats would be wise to consider, but it’s unlikely to produce anything too dramatic.

That gets to the real goal, which has already been met. The Republicans are united, at least for now, even if they have no idea how the game will play out. Jim Jordan, a prominent Republican in the House admitted they have no plan after this vote, saying “Even the best coaches in the N.F.L. only script out the first two series of plays. They don’t script the whole game. We’ve got to play the game. We’ve got to see how it all shakes out.” In short, they may have already made all of the statement they intend to.

But how will the Tea Party react if there is no follow-through on the euphoric tie of the continuing resolution to Obamacare defunding? It’s very hard to say, but it seems as though there is nothing but bad news ahead for the party. Either they stay united and keep fighting, causing a shutdown that will hurt the economy and make people angry, or they cave and possibly become more disheartened than ever. If there is some way they can declare victory and get out of this fight they almost certainly will.

We have a bit over a week until the 1 October deadline to avoid a shutdown. There will have to be a lot of movement in the meantime to avert it, but there is always the possibility that it will happen. Every single mainstream Republican backer, from the US Chamber of Commerce to serious economists, says that a shutdown will be a disaster. Ben Bernanke went out of his way to scold Congress on this point, too.

Has the time come for a really bad idea? Given that the game is about keeping the Republican Party intact, the answer is that it’s very hard to read. The potential for harm is obvious and serious, but we’ve come this far.