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Policy Paralysis

How John Boehner made a government shutdown inevitable.

Up until now, a government shutdown because of a stalemate over the budget was a strong possibility, but it didn’t appear inevitable. That’s because House Speaker John Boehner stands to be badly hurt by the train wreck a shutdown would be, and I’m confident—from what he’s said and because he was around the last time it happened—that he realizes it. But his decision last week during House consideration of the must-pass spending bill to open up the floor to unlimited amendments reframed the issue in a way that gives Boehner much less room for compromise.

Just to recap the mechanics here: The Democrats last year (inexplicably) failed to pass the appropriations bills that would keep the government running through the current fiscal year, opting instead to pass a temporary measure that runs out on March 4. Unlike the debt ceiling, this one is a hard deadline. If Congress and the president don't act, the government will shut down. National parks will close; most federal employees and most of the vast hordes of government contractors won’t get paid for the duration of the shutdown; and applications for visas, passports, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits won’t get processed. A few days of that is an inconvenience. A couple of weeks, as Republicans found out in the mid-’90s, is a disaster.

A shutdown can be avoided if all sides agree to pass a short-term funding bill, lasting a month or less, while negotiations take place on the final measure. But Boehner has said he wouldn’t pass a “clean” extension that would keep current funding levels and policy in place during those talks—almost certainly because he doesn’t have the votes for it. And last week’s amendment frenzy made finding the votes even harder

When Republicans brought the funding bill to the House floor, Boehner allowed for the introduction of hundreds of amendments, instead of following the usual procedure of having the House Rules Committee screen out most amendments. For Republican members of the House, it was a great opportunity to fulfill campaign promises by authoring amendments, many of which were approved, on all sorts of policy issues. Indeed, instead of just raising or lowering spending levels for federal agencies, these amendments prohibit the government from using any funds to carry out laws that House Republicans don’t like. So, for example, the funding bill now tells the EPA that it cannot regulate greenhouse gases; it tells the FCC that it may not implement net- neutrality regulations; it cuts funding from Planned Parenthood; and, perhaps most critically, it blocks money needed to carry out health care reform.

This means that, instead of sending the Senate a bill carefully tailored for a major budget fight, the House has delivered one containing a hodgepodge of policy fights. Consequently, it will be much harder to find common ground before time runs out to prevent a shutdown.

If the only question was about funding levels, which was always expected to be a battleground, then it’s doubtful a compromise would’ve been impossible. The budget debate might have gone to the brink, maybe even shutting the government down for a few days before a deal was reached. In theory, however, it’s just not that difficult to cut a deal between one side that wants X dollars and another side that wants Y dollars spent on, more or less, the same set of programs. Granted, many Republicans campaigned on cutting $100 billion from federal spending right away, and the final compromise total wouldn’t get them there. But, whatever the government would spend for the remainder of FY 2011 would inevitably be less than it would have been had the Democrats retained control of the House. So the GOP would have been able to call the final spending total some kind of victory.

But, when it comes to the policy fights over health care reform, environmental regulations, Planned Parenthood, and other issues, there aren’t partial victories available. Democrats won’t give in, and House Republicans won’t either, at least not easily. To take just one example: If you’re a Republican congressman, once you’ve said that allowing funds to go to Planned Parenthood is basically just funding abortion (even if it’s not), how do you reconcile a “yes” vote on a compromise bill that allows funding for that organization? (Indeed, will strongly pro-life members of Congress even be willing to vote for a two-week extension if it fails to prohibit Planned Parenthood funding?)

Boehner had the chance to make this battle about just spending levels. In that case, a shutdown could still have happened. But, instead, the speaker allowed the fight to become about so many policy issues that it’s hard to keep track of them all. He can neither win nor abandon the amendments he let pass, meaning an ugly shutdown is all but certain.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.

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