Govt. Shutdown: Does The Minority Rule?
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Coming up, diplomats around the world continue to pay close attention to the events in Syria and Iran, but one scholar explains why we shouldn't forget about Egypt. That's in a few minutes.
First, though, the federal government shutdown continues. Federal workers are furloughed, still. National parks, still closed. And patience on both sides of the aisle is thinning. That's not to mention the tolerance of voters around the country. We wanted to know more about just how we got here, so we've called on two guests who think pretty deeply about politics. Jerry Mayer is an associate professor in the school of public policy at George Mason University, and Callie Crossley is an Emmy award-winning journalist and host of WGBH's "Under the Radar with Callie Crossley." Welcome to you both.
JERRY MAYER: Thank you for having me.
CALLIE CROSSLEY: Hello, Celeste.
HEADLEE: Hello, again. Let's take a listen first to House Speaker John Boehner. He was a guest on ABC's "This Week," Sunday. He was asked how we got to this point. And here is his response.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I and my members decided that the threat of Obamacare and what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand. And we took a stand.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you decide or was it decided for you?
BOEHNER: No. I, in working with my members, decided to do this in a unified way. George - I have 233 Republicans in the House. And you've never seen a more dedicated group of people who were thoroughly concerned about the future of our country.
HEADLEE: Jerry, help me understand exactly where we stand right now. John Boehner has said definitively we don't have the votes to pass a clean CR - that means a clean continuing resolution, which would just keep the budget levels at the place they've been in the past, correct? But we've seen sources that have said if we took the vote right now, a clean CR would pass. What's true?
MAYER: It is absolutely true that a clean CR would pass if we can believe what is emerging from some Republicans' offices that there's numbers around 23, 22 - it only takes 17 or 18 Republicans to get this if all Democrats vote for it.
HEADLEE: So why would John Boehner not call it for a vote?
MAYER: Well, because this would be the end of his speakership, most likely, if he did it. He has already been revealed to be an incredibly weak speaker, perhaps the weakest since the eve of the Civil War. So, for him, then, to throw this out and put it up for an open vote - it would be an admission of total and utter defeat for his caucus.
HEADLEE: Is he already in danger of being remembered as one of the worst speakers of the House?
MAYER: Well, I don't know about worst, but weakest. But I have a lot of sympathy for the man. He is in a terribly tight position. He is a great politician if we give him credit for lasting this long because the things that his Tea Party Caucus want are undeliverable when you only control one branch of Congress. And Boehner is smart enough, and he's been around this town to know they want the impossible, but he's trying to pretend that he can give it to them.
HEADLEE: Well, Callie, you're in Boston. We are heading into day seven of the shutdown. Jerry is there talking about what's impossible in politics, but how are people dealing with the shutdown on the street? Are they expecting the impossible? Are they seeing this as a political impossibility?
CROSSLEY: At this moment, they are, but they're pretty mad about it. You know, I'm in Massachusetts - the bluest of blue states. And remember, we're also the place where we're the model for the Obamacare - Patient Affordable Care Act - that Boehner and the folks that he's representing would want to see overturned or defunded. So, people here are very frustrated. You know, we've had all the stuff that's happening across the country - one man down in Cape Cod can't get his experimental cancer treatment. We have all of the tourism sites closed down because of the government shutdown. The most important right now, in October, anyway, would be in Salem where the National Park Service cannot open up the Custom House...
HEADLEE: Oh, of course.
CROSSLEY: ...The visitor center or the tall ships, and, hello, the Salem witch trials. This is when people make all of their tourist money in this one month. So it's more than some fantasy from folks. It's hitting people all over, and even those who are not working for the government. Today in the Globe, one of our columnists spoke about some workers who are independent contractors working for the John F. Kennedy Library. When that bill goes through that allows for back pay for government workers who were furloughed, these people don't get paid. Their quote, which I think says it all is, we are not unemployed, we're just not getting paid. It's awful.
HEADLEE: Well, Jerry, she's talking from - as she says - Massachusetts, the bluest of the blue states. But most polls have shown that even among Republicans, there's not a lot of support for the use of defunding - pursuing the defunding of Obamacare by shutting down the government. So what's - I mean, what's the danger here for the Republican Party?
MAYER: Well, the danger for the Republican Party is the brand is going to be further tarnished. But it is not a danger directly to most of the House members who are forcing Boehner to do this.
CROSSLEY: There's the rub.
MAYER: Because of gerrymandered districts, the gap between what people voted for president and what people voted for the House is so different. So you have these members in safe, safe seats, and the real threat to almost all Republicans in the caucus is not a general election but a Tea Party challenger. So even ones that agree with Boehner and would like to open the government, which is what Boehner secretly thinks, can't vote that way for fear of losing their seat in a primary.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jerry Mayer of George Mason University, who you just heard, and Emmy award-winning journalist Callie Crossley about the shutdown. And I want to put this to you - and I'll get a response from both of you - but here, we asked some of our listeners to respond on social media to their thoughts about the shutdown. Rachel(ph) is a federal worker in Michigan and she had a lot of questions.
This is what she says. What happens now or in the future if Democrats give in or concede, this sets up a whole new way of operating? What happens next time a spending bill comes around and both parties decide to use the bill to force their agenda? Where's the democracy in that? I used to laugh at the doomsday preppers who were building bunkers and hoarding food. Maybe they're right, there is no common sense. Jerry, can we reassure Rachel at all?
MAYER: I'm not sure we can because we're in...
HEADLEE: Oh, no.
MAYER: ...A new world where these type of showdowns have become regular ways of doing business. And let's realize, this shutdown comes after years of doing most government budgeting through continuing resolutions, which is a really dumb way to do budgeting. I have a lot of students who work for the federal government, and these shutdowns and threat of shutdowns and continuing resolutions make it almost impossible for government to work. So in an ironic way, the Tea Party is getting what it believed in all along, is that government can't work. Now they're showing us that they can make it not work.
HEADLEE: Callie, do you recognize any of this angst that Rachel is expressing here? Is there a certain underlying fear that this is just a dissolution of our government?
CROSSLEY: Absolutely. People here are talking in terms of small-d democracy being held hostage, and that's pretty scary because we know what hostage taking means. It means that there can never be an agreement unless somebody gathers up folks and puts them in the room and surrounds themselves with, you know, metaphorical gunfire and says, all right, you give me what I want or that's it. And people here are pretty frightened and angry. We're hearing it more and more.
Not just the people who are right now directly affected, but those who know that they are going to be independently affected. Just as Jerry said, the threat of a shutdown starts to destabilize our financial systems. That's the thing that's so scary to me. And I don't see anybody moving, and neither do the people here in Massachusetts.
MAYER: And the other part of this is that the Republicans have taken a hostage that they don't care very much about. The Democrats really do care about things like the operation of government, and they believe in government. But many of the far right in Boehner's caucus have...
HEADLEE: Some parts of the Republican party. Yeah.
MAYER: ...Said they don't like government at all, or they think government is this terrible threat, so the hostage isn't that valuable to them.
HEADLEE: To that particular part. I mean, not the entire Republican party.
MAYER: No, no. I actually think there's a very exciting possibility. If you look at what happened at Washington state or New York state, you had people in budget negotiations that broke down and then people left their party. And so you could have those 18, those 22 House Republicans say, you know what, we're going to give up on trying to make this work in the normal party lines. And some of the moderates or the conservatives who care about government, might break and give some sort of moderation solution.
HEADLEE: But the same...
CROSSLEY: And, Celeste, what does it mean when some people who are - some of the Republicans who are known not to be wusses - if you want to use that word - who are very conservative have said, wait a minute, this is not a way that we should be operating. We have got to do - you know, get together and make a decision about - what does that mean? If that's being ignored, then how is there a possibility of people coming together?
HEADLEE: Well, let's explore this a little more because I don't know if either of you saw the iconic Time magazine cover where they had a picture of Washington and it said 'majority rule' crossed out in red. And I think this is what many people are wondering, Jerry, is, how could a tiny majority of one party that only controls one house hold the entire government, bring it to a standstill?
MAYER: It's because of a simple procedural change called the Hastert Rule. The Hastert Rule became the way the Republicans operate now in the House, which is that any bill that doesn't have a majority support in the Republican caucus can't get to the floor. When we had divided government in the past - say when Reagan was president and the Democrats had the House, exactly the same situation as now - most of Reagan's big proposals - tax cuts, defense increases - could not have gotten a majority of the Democratic caucus and Tip O'Neill wouldn't have brought them to the floor. But back then, there was a tradition of compromise and a tradition of getting along. If Ronald Reagan had faced the same rule that Barack Obama does, he would've been a much less successful president.
HEADLEE: So, Callie, what does this mean as we move forward? I see, already, projections that this could mean that the Republicans don't have a chance of regaining the Senate and that they might in fact face serious losses in the House. What do you think of that?
CROSSLEY: I think that's a real possibility. But I also am paying close attention to that lunch that happened when lots of folks yelled at Ted Cruz - who's considered to be one of the movement leaders in getting us to this point - and that didn't seem to impact him, for reasons Jerry just outlined. So I'm not clear of what happens. Does the public rise up and say there's a difference between what Ted Cruz did and what the rest of the members of this party are trying to do or are saying? Can we have real disagreements with the president without shutting down the government? I don't know. I'm fascinated to see what is going to happen.
MAYER: I think Democrats face a real risk of looking too smug about all of this. Republicans are now saying, why don't you negotiate? And if Democrats' response is, secretly, because it's working for us in the polls, I think those polls could shift pretty quickly. So Democrats and Republicans right now - I'm very sad to say - are more about playing the blame game for the current problem than solving it.
HEADLEE: That doesn't seem to be anything new. Jerry Mayer, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University - kind enough to join us here in our Washington studios. And Callie Crossley is an Emmy award-winning journalist and host of WGBH's "Under the Radar with Callie Crossley." She joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks to both of you.
MAYER: Oh, my pleasure.
CROSSLEY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.