The Seinfeld shutdown

Reuters

A barrier sits near the Washington Monument October 5, 2013, as the government shutdown continues into the weekend. Washington entered the fifth day of a partial government shutdown on Saturday with no end in sight even as another, more serious conflict over raising the nation's borrowing authority started heating up.

Article Highlights

  • If Republicans have already conceded the defunding of Obamacare, what’s the point of keeping the government closed?

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  • This standoff has become the Seinfeld Shutdown, a shutdown about nothing

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  • It’s not too late to make it a shutdown about something

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Quick: What do Republicans want in exchange for ending the government shutdown? If you know the answer, congratulations — because Republicans sure don’t.

When this saga began, it was about defunding Obamacare. House Republicans passed legislation to keep the government running while defunding the president’s health-care law.

Senate Democrats rejected it.

Next, the House passed another government-funding bill but attached a one-year delay of Obamacare and repeal of the medical device tax.

Senate Democrats rejected it.

So the House passed yet another government-funding bill, this one with a one-year delay of just Obamacare’s individual mandate, plus a provision requiring the president, the vice president, political appointees, all members of Congress and their staff to enroll in Obamacare’s health-care exchanges with no employer contribution.

Senate Democrats rejected it.

This week, the House tried passing small appropriations bills to keep specific portions of the government running individually — with no Obamacare conditions whatsoever.

Senate Democrats ignored it.

So we’ve gone from defunding Obamacare . . . to delaying Obamacare . . . to delaying parts of Obamacare . . . to funding the government piecemeal without touching Obamacare at all. If Republicans have already conceded the defunding of Obamacare, what’s the point of keeping the government closed? Why on earth would the GOP pass “clean” bills to fund individual parts of the government but not the whole government?

It calls to mind the episode of “Seinfeld” where Jerry and George are coming up with an idea for a show to pitch to NBC — and decide it will be “a show about nothing.” That’s what this standoff has become — the Seinfeld Shutdown, a shutdown about nothing.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to make it a shutdown about something. The GOP can still turn the tables on the Democrats and win the standoff — if it makes the fight about spending and preserving its one legislative victory of the Obama era: the Budget Control Act.

Senate Democrats gave Republicans an opening to do this when they passed a continuing resolution that keeps the government funded at the spending level the GOP wanted ($986 billion) rather than the one Democrats wanted ($1,058 billion). They did this to put Republicans in a box, so they could mock the GOP relentlessly because its members “won’t even accept their own number.”

The way Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) persuaded his fellow Democrats to go along with the GOP number was by promising that this spending level would last for only six weeks — and that after Nov. 15 Democrats would fight to get more spending as part of a debt-limit deal.

What if Republicans said to Reid: Okay, let’s not change current law at all. We’ll pass your continuing resolution to keep the government running, at the spending levels Senate Democrats agreed to — not for six weeks but for a full year. Then come January, we’ll let the second round of sequester spending cuts will take effect -- the cuts you agreed to in the Budget Control Act — automatically reducing spending even further, to $967 billion.

All of a sudden, the Democrats would be the ones in a box: If they were to refuse, then instead of Republicans shutting down the government over a law they don’t like (Obamacare), the Democrats would be shutting down the government over a law they don’t like (the Budget Control Act).

Think about it: Reid has been deriding the GOP as a bunch of “Tea Party anarchists who deny the mere fact that Obamacare is the law.” Well, the Budget Control Act is also the law. In fact, it is a law that Democrats voted for and President Obama signed. Are Democrats now “anarchists who deny the mere fact that the Budget Control Act is the law?” Are they going to (in Obama’s words) “hold the economy hostage over ideological demands” to increase federal spending? Are they going to “hurt our economy and millions of innocent people” in order to repeal “a law that passed both houses of Congress; a law that bears my signature”? Are Democrats going to “burn the house down simply because you haven’t gotten 100 percent of your way” on increasing spending?

The Democrats are not going to keep the government closed in order to bust spending caps they voted for and their president signed into law. That would be a politically unsustainable position. They would lose the moral high ground. The GOP can say, we are agreeing to live under current law — and continue under existing funding levels and the automatic spending cuts that both parties agreed to. Overnight, the GOP would trade a losing hand for a winning one.

Republicans could then pocket that victory and use the debt limit (where they have real leverage) to fight for further spending reductions. In that fight, they would have the backing of a supermajority of Americans who believe that there should be deep spending cuts in exchange for any debt-limit increase.

Will Republicans do this? Or will they continue the Seinfeld Shutdown? It depends on whether they want to continue putting on a show about nothing — or whether they want a win.

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