“It’s hard to govern when you have snipers inside the perimeter.”
–Rep. Ryan Zinke in a recent Wall Street Journal article
Barring a last-minute legislative “Hail Mary”, the federal government appears headed for a shutdown at midnight tonight. The House and Senate are both in session today and likely will remain so until there is some sort of resolution to the current impasse. The events of the last few days have been just about the most fluid circumstances we can remember seeing around Capitol Hill, and before we reach an end – or even a mid-point – in ultimately funding the federal government for FY24 there will be even more wacky legislative gymnastics.
For now, it is impossible to predict when Congress is likely to add to the total of 200+ continuing resolutions that have been enacted since the modern budget calendar went into effect in 1976. But, taking a step back from the tactical, we have some thoughts on broader dynamics at play in Congress.
Speaker McCarthy Still Has Some Things Going for Him
Give Kevin McCarthy credit for trying…and trying…and trying. The man is relentless, his doggedness and perseverance are impressive. Despite an historically narrow majority and a seemingly intractable problem, he keeps forging ahead. At some point, this determination accrues to his benefit and allies hope provides enough goodwill to convince recalcitrant lawmakers to vote with him. Also, as has been reported in the media recently, many of the holdouts on spending can point to what they are against but struggle to point out what they support. This dynamic and a building frustration among rank-and-file GOP benefit the speaker. Finally, for all of the criticism of McCarthy from the media, Democrats and even Republicans, the fact is he wants the job, has toiled long and hard for it, and no matter how much his detractors scheme no one else is floating their name to replace him. Considering the non-stop pressure he has been under for months, that is no small thing.
Be Skeptical of Wonky
It’s rare that a wonky, procedurally novel approach solves difficult situations on either the House or Senate floor. Politico, Punchbowl, and others have spent some time recently discussing potential discharge petitions, or a scenario under which the previous question is defeated on the floor as parliamentary maneuvers to pass a spending measure. This sort of thing happens from time to time but count us skeptical that the intense emotion of the current moment will allow such finesse to win the day.
Is a “Shutdown” Really a “Shutdown”
Many key federal activities (national defense, entitlement support such as Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security) are “essential” and will continue even during a shutdown. But in the meantime, expect to see media attention focused on popular federal services that will grind to a halt during a shutdown – access to national parks and monuments, passport issuances, firearms permitting, most tax refund issuances and many immigration services. During past shutdowns, this has proved to be a painful pressure point for some policymakers.
Some of the lawmakers among the holdouts in the House fervently believe they were sent to Washington to streamline/cut/shut down the federal government. From that perspective, any disruption is not about tactics or a means to an end; it is an end in and of itself, and what they believe their voters want. Persuading them to change their votes or to vote against a core belief of their supporters is much more difficult than most give credence to.
Catharsis and Fatigue
In legislative standpoints, there almost always comes a point where fatigue sets in, an inflection point after which enough lawmakers feel they have made their point. It can be as simple as Thursday afternoons when Senate staff jokes the wafting of jet fuel fumes in the chamber leads to unanimous consent requests and expedited voting, or as complicated as 14 unsuccessful votes to elect a Speaker of the House. But during these high-stress conflicts that point usually arrives, and in the shutdown argument it bears watching whether the relentless probing and work by McCarthy lead to a cathartic break that allows at least a temporary solution to take hold.