Boston: Anyone paying attention to Washington last week has probably experienced a familiar sinking feeling: Congress is embroiled in another one of its periodic hostage-taking crises over a looming budget deadline that threatens to close the government, cost taxpayers billions, and possibly plunge the economy back into recession.
One group of Republicans, led by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is trying to force President Obama to repeal his health-care law, or they will refuse to extend funding for the government, which runs out on Monday. Another group, led by House Speaker John Boehner, is attaching its list of demands to the debt ceiling, which must be increased by late October or the United States will default.
What’s most maddening about these debates is that the 2012 election was supposed to have settled them. It appeared to do so in favor of the Democrats: Obama was re-elected by 5 million votes, and his party gained seats in the House and Senate. But most Republicans either ignore these results or believe that they no longer reflect national sentiment. “That was a year ago,” says Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who wants to “defund” the Affordable Care Act. “I mean, c’mon!”
If Congress could maintain even a semblance of functionality, then no one should want the government to shut down. According to the Congressional Research Service, the back-to-back shutdowns brought on by Newt Gingrich in 1995 and 1996 cost the country $1.4 billion. But it’s now clear that Congress can’t operate smoothly and even a conclusive national election won’t break the cycle of dysfunction.
That’s why I’m rooting for a shutdown and you should be too — at this point, it’s the safest way to jolt Washington back to its senses.
Here are three reasons why:
1. A shutdown would be far less costly than default. Unless Congress acts, most government agencies will shut down on Tuesday. This would inconvenience millions and waste plenty of money, but it wouldn’t affect “mandatory” programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security or nutrition assistance. Americans would be angry. The stock market might drop. But we’ve lived through this before.
By contrast, a default would be catastrophic. Markets would plummet. Interest rates would rise, probably permanently, because lenders would price in the now-very-real risk of default, making everything from mortgages to cars to college education more expensive. The government itself would also face higher borrowing costs — a Treasury Department study found that a single percentage-point increase in interest rates would cost taxpayers an additional $150 billion a year. Worst of all, a default would almost certainly snuff out the recovery and bring on another recession.
2. We’d quickly find out which party Americans support. One powerful driver of Washington dysfunction is the certainty among partisans of both camps that Americans secretly agree with them and would rally to their side during a shutdown. In April 2011, when Republicans first demanded concessions to pass a continuing resolution, many hoped for a shutdown because they thought the Tea Party movement that had rebuked Democrats in the midterm elections would rise up once again.
Today, many Democrats want a shutdown because polls show Republicans would be blamed. Some Republicans disagree. “I think Americans would side with the people who are fighting against a law they know is unfair,” says Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, the godfather of the “defund Obamacare” movement. A shutdown would make clear who is right and who is wrong, removing the temptation for another showdown.
3. Congress might start working again. The severity (and danger) of budget crises has steadily intensified as Congress has stopped working the way it is supposed to. It no longer operates as civic textbooks describe, where committees in both chambers study issues, pass bills, and then reconcile them in a formal negotiating conference. Instead, party leaders began resorting to last-minute, back-room deals. But Republicans, bitter about the deals they were getting, forced their leaders to stop. That led to the current system of negotiation-by-public-threat. A shutdown would be a bracing reminder to one party or the other (my money’s on the Republicans) of why the Gingrich approach failed so badly.
When that lesson sinks in, the old, saner way of doing things will probably look much better.
Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.