The government shutdown isn’t helping anyone. The American people are the real losers, but their leaders are also being hurt politically. There are indications the votes to end the costly and unnecessary shutdown might be there, so why doesn’t Congress just do it?
Well, that’s much easier said than done. We do live in a democracy, but it’s one that has been weakened by congressional rules that are designed to put the welfare of political parties ahead of the public’s best interests.
If this event were happening in Louisiana, the issue would have already been resolved one way or the other. That’s because this state’s Legislature may be one of the most democratic bodies in the country. Bills, with extremely rare exceptions, are always heard in committees. They are either rejected or approved there. If approved, they are sent to the House and Senate floors for final action.
Unfortunately, Congress has rules committees that decide if and when bills will be heard on the floor. The rules committees are often called “the traffic cops of the House and Senate.” And congressional leaders often use the committees for personal or political reasons. The current shutdown is a case in point.
The House could end the shutdown by passing a continuing resolution. Republicans are prepared to do it, but they have strings attached, like delaying Obamacare for a year. The Senate would approve the resolution, but it wants nothing tied to it. So, that is why there is a deadlock.
The key players in this dispute are House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. They control their rules committees and personally decide which bills and resolutions get to the floors of their chambers for a final vote.
Congress didn’t always work that way. Committee chairmen during the last century decided which bills were brought to the floor for a vote. That changed in the 1980s, according to a report by Bloomberg Business Week. It said the change came about when most members of each party began to think alike.
“Once you can get a whole party to agree on something, party discipline becomes possible. Once it’s possible, you can wield it as a weapon,” Business Week said. And that’s exactly what Boehner and Reid are doing over the shutdown.
Democrats controlled the House in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts was speaker. Business Week said he forced the chairman of the rules committee to answer to the speaker’s office and that is how it works today. GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s gave his office more strength when he did away with seniority is choosing chairmen of committees and gave the jobs to younger House members who were loyal to the speaker.
Dennis Hasert, an Illinois Republican, early in this century added another unique feature when he was speaker. It’s called the Hasert Rule, which instructs the speaker to keep any bill off the floor if it doesn’t have support of “the majority of the majority.”
The House has 435 members — 232 Republicans, 200 Democrats and three vacancies. Under the Hasert Rule, 117 or more of those 232 Republicans are reportedly preventing Boehner from bringing a resolution to the floor that could end the shutdown.
Boehner doesn’t want to lose his speaker’s job, so he is doing exactly what “the majority of the majority” is telling him to do — don’t vote on ending the shutdown. Unfortunately, there is no way to know whether Boehner is right or wrong about what that party majority wants because he won’t allow a vote on the shutdown.
Party members don’t want to force the issue because they could lose choice jobs and other perks of being in the party that controls the House. Some who were quoted as saying they wanted a shutdown vote changed their tunes when confronted by the media.
Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., didn’t cave in. He told CNN, “I believe a clean CR (concurrent resolution) would pass comfortably. I’m not here to predict the number, but I think it would clear the 217 vote barrier.”
Don’t get the idea this is just a Republican failing. The Democrats operate the same way. Reid was asked if he would negotiate during the shutdown and said, “Not going to happen.”
President Obama is no different. He said he would talk to Republicans about deficits, health care, entitlements and taxes only after they end the shutdown and increase the debt limit. There was some indication Friday both sides could be softening their hard-line approach, but don’t hold your breath.
Why the possible change of heart? Look at the latest polls.
The Associated Press poll showed Obama’s approval rating dropping to 37 percent. And 62 percent of those surveyed blamed Republicans for the shutdown. The Gallup poll had Obama with 49 percent favorable and unfavorable ratings. Boehner’s rating was 27 percent favorable and 51 percent unfavorable. Reid was at 27 favorable and 43 percent unfavorable.
As you can see, there is no great love there for anyone in the Washington political establishment. The only way out of this folly is for both houses of Congress to fulfill their constitutional obligations by voting to either end or continue the shutdown. Then, let the chips fall where they may. Isn’t that the proven American way?