I had the pleasure of attending this year’s Jefferson Jackson Bailey Dinner last week. There I heard Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s fine speech outlining many of the very good things he has done as governor. One line on another topic stuck with me, however, because I agreed with it and because it terrified me. The governor referred to Congressional Republicans as “barbarians” at the wall. The analogy is apt. Yet, the really scary thing to remember is that the historical Barbarians managed to take down the Roman Empire.
To my mind, these Congressional Republicans are almost as dangerous to our country as the Barbarians were to Rome. It isn’t hard to find examples of the terrible consequences of the government shutdown. Real people, real pain.
Even more damaging than these real world consequences, as terrible as they are, is what this is doing to the country’s ability to govern itself. If one House of Congress has the ability to shutdown the government because it doesn’t like a particular law and that becomes accepted practice, it will be impossible for anything to ever be settled. The government will be a few days away from a shutdown on a continual basis.
It is important to remember how we got here because understanding that path makes clear that the Republicans have been getting their way, and the trend likely will continue. It’s possible to go quite far back to see how we got here, but in the interest of brevity let’s start with the aftermath of the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.
The great debt ceiling fight of 2011 followed the election. No one with expertise in economics doubts that defaulting on the debt would be catastrophic. Republicans understood that and used the fear of default to extort spending cuts from President Obama.
In the end, the President had no choice but to accept budget cuts because if he refused, the economy would have crashed. Although he might have been able to blame the Republicans, the odds were good that he still would have taken a serious hit in his approval ratings and most likely would not have been re-elected.
The President also gave in on what he thought was a modest amount — a little less than $1 trillion over 10 years. And he assumed a bigger deal would be forthcoming. The 2011 deal assumed that a “Super Committee” made up of appointed members from both chambers and from both parties would negotiate a broader, long-lasting agreement. The “sequester” was supposed to lead to such a deal; its automatic cuts were supposed to be so bad that neither side could tolerate them and thus they would find a compromise.
Well, the Super Committee did not come close to a deal, and those cuts no one would want are now the law of the land and are included in the “clean” continuing resolution Democrats are pushing. Those cuts are wreaking havoc in science and other areas, and yet no deal is even whispered that would end the sequester.
The 2012 election, although terrible for Republicans in a lot of ways, still left them in basically the same position to take down the government as before. Roughly 80 percent of the House Republican caucus is immune to public pressure; their seats are so safe they can’t be defeated in a general election. Whatever “moderate” Republicans are left are so cowed that they couldn’t stop this shutdown. The last time the Republicans in Congress pulled a stunt like this just two years ago, they won. Why wouldn’t they try it again?
The fact is, sequestration and the debt fight that caused it got them government spending reductions they never could have dreamed of getting had the cuts passed through the normal budget process. The Barbarians may be losing elections and getting mocked by liberals and the television pundits, yet they are winning on policy.
And what say our local Republicans? They either woefully misunderstand the problem or are deliberately obfuscating.
Sen. John McKinney, for example, argues that a one-year delay in implementing Obamacare in exchange for keeping the government open is “extremely reasonable.” It might be possible to argue that delaying Obamacare for a year is reasonable. I don’t think it is, but I can see it. What is not reasonable is extracting a policy price for doing something that should be done. Even if you disagree with the law, that does not make shutting down the government or defaulting in order to stop it a reasonable response. That is not close to reasonable.
Likewise, former Sen. Dan Debicella, who is running for Congress in the 4th District, said something equally problematic. “I think people are sick of both parties and the inflexibility they are showing,” Debicella said.
If it is not clear to us by now that Democrats absolutely cannot be flexible when the issue is the fundamental ability of the government to function, then we are lost. If Connecticut were to send a Republican to Congress, we would need to send someone who at least “gets it” about what is really going on in Washington. The remarks of the other Republicans running for governor — Tom Foley, Mark Boughton, Toni Boucher — were no better.
In the meantime, all our state can do is sit and wait and hope the government re-opens. We also should take this moment to realize we have in front of us a clear lesson about the power of Republican “moderates” that we should remember next November.
The Journal Inquirer may pine for the return of moderate Republicans but before we let them represent us in Washington we must be convinced that these moderates would not empower the people shutting down the government.
Sadly, that is exactly what is happening now. As of this posting a majority of both Houses are on the record as wanting the shutdown to end. It should be impossible for that to be true and for the shutdown to continue — but it is. It shows us just how powerless the “moderates” are. If these bullying minority tactics work in the long-term, the Barbarians will overrun the citadel and the country will collapse as Rome did centuries ago.
Jason Paul of West Hartford is a partner in a campaign consulting company called What’s Next. He is also a student at the University of Connecticut Law School.