Did leaders learn their lesson from the shutdown?

October 22, 2013 

If there is a silver lining to be found in the shutdown of the federal government and the run-up to a potentially catastrophic default on the national debt, it is that lawmakers might now be more reluctant to use that tactic again.

Ironically, they will have the opportunity to do so early next year. The bill that originated in the Senate and also was passed by the House funds the government only through Jan. 15.

While that will delay the threat of another shutdown until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, nothing guarantees an angry minority won’t shutter the government on Jan. 16.

Hopes are, however, that lessons were learned from this crisis and that the political landscape has changed enough to keep the hotheads in check next time. In addition, the terms of the agreement to end the shutdown and avert default are designed to provide an opportunity for members of the Congress and the president to sit down and reason together rather than butting heads.

The bill sets up a conference committee to deal with budget issues without the imminent threat of a shutdown. It could lay the groundwork for replacing pending sequester budget cuts, which would primarily hit military spending, with more discretionary cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hoped members of the committee would work to “set our country on a long-term path to fiscal sustainability.”

The budget showdown originally was engineered to force Congress to defund the Affordable Care Act – commonly known as Obamacare – or face economic Armageddon. The tactic was doomed from the start, with neither the Senate nor the White House willing to submit to the threat.

Even with that option closed to them, the tea party faction of the Republican Party, most of whom reside in the House, continued to block efforts to end the shutdown in hopes of other concessions on the part of Senate Democrats and the president.

But the Democrats were unusually unified. They pointedly refused to negotiate while under the gun. And President Obama, who has offered concessions as the nation veered toward fiscal cliffs in the past, didn’t blink this time.

In the end, House Republicans came away with almost nothing from this encounter. And they appear to have paid a heavy political price in the process.

While neither side enhanced its stature with the public during the 16-day shutdown, it was a debacle for the Republicans. Polls showed the approval of the GOP, now a deeply divided party, at all-time lows.

The party’s establishment might flinch before risking another such disaster. Among others, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., lamented the kamikaze nature of the Republican strategy.

“This package (the Senate bill) is a joke compared to what we could have gotten if we had a more reasonable approach,” he said. “For the party, this is a moment of self-evaluation. We are going to assess how we got here. If we continue down this path, we are really going to hurt the Republican Party long term.”

But another South Carolinian, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, was less remorseful. Mulvaney, who later voted against the compromise, told CNN Wednesday, “We really do believe that this was worth having the fight.”

Given the results for his party – and the estimated $24 billion the shutdown cost the nation – his reasoning is dubious. And we sincerely hope he and other members of the tea party wing are not itching for a rematch.

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