Government Dysfunction and Possible Shutdown

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Analysis by Reporting San Diego

March 27, 2017 (San Diego) The American Health Care Act failed to even make it to the floor. It was a spectacle of dysfunction that only gets worst with the passage of the years. The Republicans, who control both branches of government, could not pass a bill, in this case a central bill to their agenda. Regardless of the flaws of the bill, and it had many, , what this failure reflected is something else. For all their bluster, the Republicans are incapable of governing. Nor did thy have a plan ready to go after 60 plus repeal votes. It gets worst, they are so divided internally that in effect we have more than one Republican coalition in Congress. One faction is moderate, by modern standards, the other is far right libertarian, which a high dislike of government. Neither has enough votes to impose their will on the other. This internal party civil war got worst with the capture of the White House. Now they have to deliver, and they have no idea how to.

So what did a much weakened White House use as an excuse for the failure? “Far left Democrats,” of course. This makes little sense, except that this excuse is not for the consumption of the average voter, who likely did not follow the intricacies of D.C.  This excuse was designed for the hyper partisan base who in many cases believes Democrats to be evil incarnate. They are powerful, capable of sorcerous spells never before seen, never mind they are mostly irrelevant. If Republicans got the conferences aligned, that bill would have passed, with or without democrats.

I am far from the first to make this observation. The U.S. House, in particular, is increasingly behaving like a Parliament.  Each faction is doing what it can to slow or stop other factions, even those nominally within their own party, While Democrats remained united in this case, they too are divided between two very different groups, with very different philosophies of both government and what liberty is.

There are at least four major factions, two per party. The Republicans have the Tuesday Morning group. These are moderate Republicans. They still hold what should be a governing majority. Some in the Republican Party call them the establishment. To be fair, some are part of what once was called the establishment. A few, rare as they are, are part of the old East Coast establishment. But most were elected in more recent times as older more moderate Republicans left Congress. Charlie Dent, Congressman from Pennsylvania is one of them. He is part of a much older party from a time when people still could and would compromise. He also refused to vote for the AHCA once the party gave in to the far right.

The far right is the Freedom Caucus. which was formed from the Tea Party and other libertarian, far right groups. These members of Congress were elected during the 2010 election and later years They are mostly ignorant of a system that existed before, where compromise was part of the job. In fact, many of them ran on a promise to never ever compromise their small government principles. In essence, they believe the government is too big, has always been too big, and it has taken away from the people. There is one area where they believe the government should spend money. This is the military. They have no problem spending increasing amounts of money on defense or any other national security rubric. They do not understand how public health could be seen in that light.  They are against any federal spending that might help groups at risk, especially the poor and minorities.

When the Speaker tried to get them to cooperate and to get in line, they started making demands. Among them was to get rid of all essential insurance services, such as women’s health and preventive health care, that in their mind have increased the cost of medical delivery in the United States. They are philosophically opposed to any spending on social services that might help the poor. This is a principle thing, so expanding Medicaid is also against their principles, even if some come from districts where large numbers of their constituents have insurance for the first time in their lives. They also believe the market will solve everything. So their demands, in this light, made perfect sense.

This debacle also revealed the weakness of the Speaker of the House. Paul Ryan took over from John Boehner, who understood that he had very little real power as long as his right flank remained obtuse and stopped any real reforms. Ryan has found himself fin the same hole. His right flank cannot pass legislation on its own. But it can certainly stop it. This makes governing next to impossible. He will need to find a way to work with Democrats, but Democrats have decided to do to the Republicans, exactly what Republicans did to them over the last 6 years. So getting Democrats into his coalition will be heard, Without them, he has no way to pass any major legislation.

Then there are the Democrats who also have their own internal divisions. There are more than just two factions as well, but the largest are the progressives, who are center-left, and the center-right blue dog democrats. The latter hold power in the sense that all leadership positions are held by members of that caucus. They are pro-corporation more than pro-government. In fact, they have a lot more in common with moderate republicans than their left flank. Just like moderate republicans have a lot more in common with them than their right flank. Out of these two, the Speaker could potentially get a working governing coalition.

Which gets us back to the excuses from the White House, and Sean Spicer. While he blamed far left democrats, the reality is far less to the left and far more to the inability of the Republicans to govern or compromise.

In an older time, democrats and republicans did compromise and work together for national legislation. Over the last 20 years, starting with Speaker Newt Gingrich, that practice started to give way to increasingly partisan legislation. It is to the point that reaching across the aisle is seen as tantamount to treason to their own party by leadership in both major parties. With the internal divisions, you cannot get enough votes to pass anything.

Because of this on April 28 the government might shut down. The president is weak, and the Speaker has no significant power. The far right flank of the Republican House has been emboldened. So on the 28th, we might wake up to a necessary spending vote that will be impossible to get. It is not a question of procedure, but a question of will. It is also a question of understanding how the Congress works. It is not a parliament, yet, it functions increasingly like one.

We have been moving towards a crisis of government for some years. That crisis might be here, and how we respond will determine the future. What is true is that the Donald Trump administration might be the weakest presidency in the history of the country. We are not even to day 100. Replacing the speaker will not the dynamics either. However, that pressure has started to build. 

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