The Speaker of the House is the only Congressional official listed in the Constitution, aside from another temporary Senate official who presides when the Vice President is unable to do so. The role of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is not defined, but it certainly includes passing legislation that keeps the federal government running. But Kevin McCarthy, the current president, isn't doing that job. Indeed, at this point, it's hard to imagine how he can pass any bill that maintains federal funding, let alone one that the Democratic-controlled Senate accepts. So it looks like we're headed for a federal shutdown later this month, with many major government activities suspended until further notice.
Why? McCarthy is a weak leader, especially compared to Nancy Pelosi, his formidable predecessor. But even a wonderful leader would surely be unable to grasp the dynamics of a party that has been extremist for a generation, but has now moved beyond extremism to bordering on nihilism.
And yes, it's a Republican problem. Any narrative about "Congressional" dysfunction or "partisanship" simply misinforms the public. Crises like the one McCarthy now faces did not occur with Pelosi, even though she also had a very small majority.
I will come back to that difference. But first, let me make another comparison: between the impending shutdown of 2023 and the shutdowns of 1995-96, when Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House.
If you had told me then that one day I would use Gingrich as a model of rationality, I would not have believed them. But pay attention.
Although, back in 1995, Gingrich's tactics—his penchant for employing blackmail as a political strategy—were new and dangerous, he had a real political goal: He wanted to impose major cuts in federal spending.
In addition, Gingrich was trying to go to where the money was. The federal government is an insurance company with an army: most non-military spending goes to the big social protection programs, i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. And Gingrich, in fact, aspired to make deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.
It failed, and the government's role in promoting health insurance coverage ended up expanding enormously, although Medicare has been surprisingly successful in containing costs. Still, Gingrich's goals were at least consistent.
McCarthy, in his desperate efforts to appease his party's hardliners, has acted as if their refusal to approve federal funding is a demand to cut federal spending similar to Gingrich's. He has tried to pass a continuity resolution — a bill that would temporarily keep money flowing — that involved deep cuts in some parts of the federal government.
But there are three noteworthy aspects in this attempt. First, even if he had gotten that resolution passed, he would have died on reaching the Senate. Second, unlike Gingrich back then, McCarthy has tried to go where there is no money, cutting non-military discretionary spending, which makes up a fairly small portion of the federal budget. It's also a spending category that has already been subject to more than a decade of austerity ever since President Barack Obama made concessions to Republicans during the debt ceiling showdown in 2011. You just can't get water out of that stone.
Finally, even this extreme proposal was not extreme enough for hardline Republicans. I liked what one member of Congress told Politico: "Some of these people would vote against the Bible because there's not enough Jesus in it." The point is that the right wing of the party is not really interested in governing; It is pure posturing, and the budget battle is a tantrum rather than a political dispute.
If the Republican Party were anything like a normal party, McCarthy would renounce the right-wingers, assemble the most sensible Republican representatives—it would be misleading to call them "moderates"—and compromise with the Democrats. But that would almost certainly cost him the presidency and, in general, more or less the entire Republican Party is afraid of hardliners, so the party's positions end up being dictated by its most extreme faction.
As I said, this is all very different from what happens on the other side of the aisle. You still sometimes see analyses that treat left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans as if they were the same, but they are nothing alike. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is, in fact, interested in politics; She tries to push the party leadership in her direction, but she is willing to keep what she can get. That's why Pelosi, with a slim majority during Biden's first two years, got historic laws passed on infrastructure, climate and technology, while McCarthy can't even keep the government running.
Now, a prolonged shutdown would be very damaging and, if past clashes are any guide, public opinion would blame Republicans, which is what led Gingrich to back down in the 1990s. But it's not clear that McCarthy, or whoever replaces him if he is ousted, is willing or even able to strike a deal that would reopen the government. How does this end?
Paul Krugman is a Nobel laureate in economics. © The New York Times, 2023. Translation of News Clips
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