Published: October 1, 2013
By Tuesday morning, the leadership failure of Speaker John Boehner was complete. In encouraging the impossible quest of House Republicans to dismantle health care reform, he pushed the country into a government shutdown that will now begin to take a grievous economic toll.
At any point, Mr. Boehner could have stopped it. Had he put on the floor a simple temporary spending resolution to keep the government open, without the outrageous demands to delay or defund the health reform law, it could easily have passed the House with a strong majority — including with sizable support from Republican members, many of whom are aware of how badly this collapse will damage their party.
But Mr. Boehner refused. He stood in the well of the House and repeated the tired falsehood that the Affordable Care Act was killing jobs. He came up with a series of increasingly ridiculous demands: defund the health law, delay it for a year, stop its requirement that employers pay for contraception, block the medical device tax, delay the individual mandate for a year, strip Congressional employees of their health subsidies. All were instantly rejected by the Senate. “They’ve lost their minds,” Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said of the House Republicans. “They keep trying to do the same thing over and over again.”
Finally, at the last minute, when there was still time to end the charade with a straightforward spending bill, Mr. Boehner made the most absurd demand of all: an immediate conference committee with the Senate. Suddenly, with less than an hour left, he wanted to set up formal negotiations?
For six months, the Senate has been demanding a conference with the House on the 2014 budget — talks that might have prevented the impasse in the first place. But the House leadership has adamantly refused, knowing it would not succeed in getting all the cuts to taxes and spending that it demands. For Mr. Boehner to call for a conference near midnight was the height of hypocrisy.
The consequences of Mr. Boehner’s failure will be immediate: 800,000 government employees thrown out of work, over a million more working without pay, offices that provide important services closed, and programs on which poor people depend — like the Women, Infants and Children nutrition system — cut off. The longer Republicans refuse to approve a rational spending measure, the more federal agencies will be affected and the greater the damage done to an economy still in recovery.
Having let down the public, Republicans will now, inevitably, scramble to save their reputation. They are desperate to make it appear as if President Obama and the Democrats are the ones being intransigent, hoping voters will think that everyone is at fault and simply blame “Washington.” Mr. Boehner even mocked the president on Monday for refusing to negotiate over health reform, as if he actually expected Mr. Obama to join in wrecking a law that will provide health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans under threat of blackmail.
On Tuesday, Republicans came up with another self-serving offer, proposing to open a few government departments whose closures are likely to produce negative news coverage, such as Veterans Affairs and the national parks. Democrats quickly made it clear that only a full reopening of government would suffice, and three of the bills died in the House. More are expected, however.
Earlier in his presidency, Mr. Obama made the catastrophic mistake — in the face of just this sort of extortion — to believe in Mr. Boehner’s willingness to be reasonable. This time, however, the cynical games of the Republicans are not going to work.
The Republicans’ reckless obsession with destroying health reform and with wounding the president has been on full display. And, as the public’s anger grows over this entirely unnecessary crisis, it should be aimed at a party and a speaker that are incapable of governing.