Government Shutdown Imminent: How Beltway Reporting Helped Bring Us to the Brink
It’s almost certain that we’ll see the government shut down on Tuesday. The last time that happened, in 1996, it cost $2.1 billion in today’s dollars. Breaching the debt limit would be far, far worse - nobody knows how bad, exactly, but everyone agrees that it would be really bad. The risk of finding out has never been greater. This showdown is by far the most dangerous of a series of fiscal “crises” that have been contrived during the Obama presidency.
Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called “a kind of quasi-impeachment” in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.
But it’s not normal. Republicans are demanding that Democrats unwind their signature achievement - a piece of legislation that took 18 months to pass, survived a Supreme Court challenge and a presidential election - in exchange for a stopgap budget resolution. On Saturday, they tacked on a provision that would limit access to contraceptives.
Then there’s the other hostage - the debt ceiling. Consider the list of demands Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) issued last week for raising it, as reported by Ezra Klein:
In return for a one-year suspension of the debt ceiling, House Republicans are demanding a yearlong delay of Obamacare, adoption of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s tax-reform plan, construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, more offshore oil drilling, more drilling on federally protected lands, looser regulations around ash coal, a suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of carbon emissions, more power over the regulatory process in general, reform of the federal employee retirement program, changes to the Dodd-Frank Act, more power over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s budget, repeal of the Social Services block grant, expanded means-testing for Medicare benefits, repeal of the public health trust fund and more.
This opening gambit is virtually unprecedented. In the past, a few minor sweeteners have been tacked onto debt-limit hikes. Debt limit increases have also been added to budget bills negotiated separately by the parties in order to avoid a vote altogether. What makes the current ploy novel is they are offering essentially the entirety of Mitt Romney’s agenda - in essence, a demand to do over the 2012 election and, while they’re at it, 2008 as well.
Yet you wouldn’t fully appreciate the audacity of this tactic by reading standard Beltway coverage. As Brian Beutler notes in Salon, Time Magazine reporter Zeke Miller calls this “negotiating technique… is by no means novel. Hostage taking — by promising harm if you do not get your way — has long been a standard way of doing business in Washington.” James Fallows, decrying what he calls a “failure of journalism,” flagged the headline, “Parties Digging in Their Heels as Hourglass Empties.” (The Courier-Post, a Gannett paper, similarly went with, “Lawmakers dig in their heels; government shutdown nearer.”) And Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan described the ransom note as simply a set of “demands for reform.” All of this coverage reeks of false equivalency, implying yet again that “both sides do it.”