Late Thursday night, the Senate passed a spending extension to avoid a government shutdown. Before we celebrate this accomplishment, it should be noted that the extension is only through March 11, so Congress did little more than push the deadline back three weeks.
There will be no shutdown for now, but if Congress is unable to pass a larger and longer-term spending bill in a few weeks, that will change. Government shutdowns can create many problems, particularly if they last more than a few hours. While some federal government services would be delivered, institutions like national parks and museums would shutter and federal employees may not get paid.
The two parties have a deeply asymmetrical relationship to governance.
If a shutdown lasted several weeks, the problems would get worse as government contracts would not be fulfilled, more funding would stop and federal employees would begin to face potentially grave financial crises. So, in a rational system where both parties were interested in governance, they would do whatever they could to stop a shutdown from occurring.
Anybody who has been paying attention over the last few years knows that the U.S. cannot accurately be described as either having a rational system or having two parties interested in governing. Rather, U.S. politics today is deeply irrational, with basic realities like the efficacy of vaccines and climate change mostly contested by one side.
Additionally, the two parties have a deeply asymmetrical relationship to governance. The Democratic Party still seeks to solve problems, craft policy and govern. During the Biden administration, the successful (to a point) vaccination campaign, Covid-19 recovery bill, infrastructure bill and the thus-far unsuccessful Build Back Better bill all demonstrate this. The contrast with the GOP, whose governance efforts during the Trump administration were limited to a major tax cut that was criticized for benefiting the wealthy and some pandemic relief in the beginning stages of Covid, is apparent.
In recent months, this gap has gotten larger as the GOP, particularly at the state and local level, has become obsessed with issues like cancel culture, critical race theory and preventing Covid precautions, which are all oriented around disruption rather than governance.
A glaring example of this discrepancy is that in the days leading up to Thursday night’s vote when the possibility of a shutdown was very real, one of the issues contributing to the impasse was that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wanted the Senate to vote on his bill to stop the Biden administration from funding the distribution of crack pipes through its harm reduction programs. Rubio was threatening, along with other Republican senators, to not pass a funding bill until a vote was taken on his bill.
Stopping the federal government from distributing crack pipes is the kind of idea most Americans can support. The problem with Rubio’s bill was that the Biden administration is not distributing crack pipes — and Rubio must have known that. The crack pipes claim stemmed from an article in the right-leaning Washington Free Beacon published on Feb. 7, which The Washington Post later reported relied on assumptions instead of facts. Press secretary Jen Psaki called the claim “misinformation” and explained that pipes “has never been a part of what’s been funded.”
Still, Rubio persisted. His aim was not governance-saving but was grandstanding.
There was no vote taken on Rubio’s bill, but votes were taken on two bills seeking to stop funding for vaccine mandates backed by three other Republican senators: Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Roger Marshall of Kansas. Opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates have become a central plank of the Republican Party, but forcing a vote on that, particularly when you don’t have the votes, has little relationship with governance.
The reason GOP senators can take these positions and risk a government shutdown is because they have much less to lose than the Democrats. Some of this is more or less normal politics. GOP strategy heading into the midterms is to persuade the voters that Biden is a failure as president. They will cite inflation, the persistence of Covid — which is substantially the result of Republican opposition to masks and vaccines — the withdrawal from Afghanistan and, depending on what happens in the following days or weeks, a possible war in Ukraine as they portray Biden as a weak and incompetent leader. A government shutdown would underscore that argument.
Additionally, shutting down the government is a much bigger problem for a Democratic Party that still believes in the basic functions of government than it is for a GOP that increasingly sees elective offices as primarily a means to air grievances and generate media attention. In other words, with a government shutdown, you can still criticize vaccine mandates or what is taught in the schools as the GOP does, but you can’t implement programs as Democrats would like to do.
The GOP has implicitly left questions of real governance to the Democrats while they wallow in grievance politics and hot-button issues. This gives them a lot more leverage than the Democrats have as a shutdown looms again.