James Poulos

In all likelihood, Republican efforts to defund Obamacare are toast — and sooner rather than later. It appears to be a fantasy that a bill to defund would even make it to president Obama’s desk.

It seems to be inadequate for today’s Republicans simply to do the intransigent, useless thing.

This straightforward reality has prompted many reasonable observers to ask why frustrated conservatives would bother risking a government shutdown over the affair. Suck it up and move on, they say — even if Obamacare is stupid or bad.

And they are being reasonable, but they’re also wrong.

Many people are beyond frustrated with Republicans right now. They just don’t get it. It seems to be inadequate for today’s Republicans simply to do the intransigent, useless thing. They have to do the thing that also “holds us hostage,” putting the whole government and its functions on the line in order to gratify their sense of ideological correctness. WHY??? Because they’re jerks, comes the answer. They’re mean people.

That’s a judgment that would make a lot more sense were it not the case that, every day, on a myriad of issues right and left, it’s the government that’s holding us hostage — hostage to one-time votes made in Congress for the usual farrago of not-so-idealistic reasons.

Here’s how it works: a bill comes up for a vote. Round after frenetic round of lobbying and whipping has pretty much guaranteed the outcome. The bill passes, but more importantly the funding for the bill passes, and no matter how much of a dog the law turns out to be, it stays funded.

Once one chunk of the budget is on the table, every chunk of the budget there’s a constituency to alter is on the table, conceptually speaking. Defunding anything occurs to us as a slippery slope — a slippery cliff. If you defund this, what’s to stop future crazy Members from trying to defund anything they don’t like?

What indeed? How else are bad laws to be disposed of? Repeal? Debates around repeal are the same debates: repealing a law that is a budget item is defunding it (and then taking its penniless body out back and hitting it with the shovel).

Our fear of a Congress consumed by efforts to defund disliked laws has inspired us to think that nothing should be defunded. In fact, we are so convinced that everything should be funded that we fear the only way to make good on our conviction is to always fund more than everything, a.k.a. increase the debt ceiling.

We actually have been to this rodeo before. Seventeen times!

This is how, in our minds, the only way to make a law mortal becomes a mortal threat to democracy. But isn’t it a greater threat to democracy to insist that no law, once passed, can ever go off the books and out of the budget? Isn’t the ultimate threat to democracy an enforced vow that once one hapless collection of Members or another votes to spend money on something important, we have to pay for it forever?

Of course, sometimes a new Congress does come in and tweak things around. Sometimes a program here or there gets sliced or dropped. But that’s a poor reflection of what’s at stake when it comes to the federal budget and American democracy.

What matters is that sometimes realignments of power that reflect voters’ minds and real-world change inspire Members of Congress to oppose a (big) budgeted piece of legislation. And because of our paralyzing fear of “dysfunctional government” (I’ve got news for you, it’s already here), Washington is set up so that any effort to defund a significant piece of legislation will provoke a “shutdown showdown.”

And guess what: We actually have been to this rodeo before. Seventeen times! Sometimes over matters considerably more limited in their scope and heft than Obamacare. That’s why Michele Bachmann is saying stuff like this to Byron York:

This isn’t just another bill. This isn’t load limits on turnip trucks that we’re talking about. This is consequential. And I think the reason why you’ve come to this flash point is that this is an extremely consequential bill that will impact every American, and that’s why you have such passionate opinions.

Analogies are always risky, but: this is tantamount to a move to defund the war in Iraq. Either you think the budgeted legislation is horrible or you don’t. And if you think it is horrible (like, a truly inexcusable mistake with real, rotten, and lasting bad consequences) then you’re in dereliction of your political duties not to try to take the money away. And if the reason you’re given for why the money has to stay — why the legislation is immutable — is that we can’t risk a government shutdown, well, who’s the real hostage? Especially when — the ultimate howler — you’re simultaneously told that your efforts are even more ridiculous because there’s no way they could ever actually work?

This line of intimidation and guilt-tripping knows no party. It works like a charm when demonizing and discrediting any group of legislators who want to un-chisel a once-passed bill out of budgetary stone. But is the “mature, responsible” position to treat a piece of legislation like a prison you build around yourself and fund forever, even after your death?

Elected representatives from both parties ought to break the shackles of fear-soaked propriety more often. So what if, most of the time, their push to defund will be dead on arrival? Establishment types will realize that shutdowns aren’t the horror shows they dread. And Members of Congress will begin to understand that slavish devotion to party and budget orthodoxy serves neither their conscience nor their constituents.

The best way to shake up our calcified government and two-party system is for individual Members to band together ad hoc — or alone, if need be — to try applying the power of the purse to legislation they truly, madly, and deeply cannot abide.

And yes: if our reps can’t tell the difference between budgetary resistance born of expediency and scheming instead of a sense of prudence and principle, there’s a strong pro-democracy case for throwing them out of office at the first available chance.

James Poulos
for The Daily Reckoning

Ed. Note: Alas, that pro-democracy case seems unlikely to come to pass. But that doesn’t mean you can’t live a freer, more profitable life on your own terms. The Daily Reckoning email is designed to help you do just that, completely free. Every day, it gives reads the chance at real, actionable investment opportunities, designed specifically to grow in spite, and even because of, federal incompetence. Sign up for The Daily Reckoning, for FREE, right here.


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James Poulos

James Poulos is a journalist living out of California. He's currently a Producer at HuffPost Live and contributes to both Forbes and Vice. His writing has been published in places like The American Conservative, The American Interest, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and Cato Unbound.

  • Tom Sawyer

    This shutdown is owned by Republicans. They were offered an opportunity to talk back in 09, and 10. Boehner said nyet . No talk, no compromise nothing. Up until recently Obama was Bush’s third term . I don’t think anyone can really be serious when they refer to Obama as a liberal. For Gods sake he kept Bush holdovers for the entire first term,instead of winding the wars down expanded them, buckled how many times to appease republicans and hung the teachers union out to dry, and instituted more free trade and then people call him a socialist. I think finally and hopefully Obama learned his lesson.

  • Shadow of Doubt

    To think that Obama has learned a lesson is quite a reach. He’s a one trick pony. He’s knows what he knows and if it doesn’t work, he’ll double down on what’s not working, spin the numbers to give him creditability with the low information voter, and blame Bush.
    I wish I could find a job where I didn’t need to project or be held to a realistic budget. I could ignore the rule of law and tell people falsehoods when the situation called for it. Unfortunately, I’d either get fired or be in jail.–but who said life was fair.

  • Tom Sawyer

    Republicans have become domestic terrorists. The Affordable Care Act can’t possibly be as bad as it is portrayed as most modern countries have some form of socialized medicine and not because they have to. Japan, Canada and most of Europe could easily walk away and let private insurance take over . They don’t and the govt doesn’t make money on the system.

  • Tom Sawyer

    The US is a producer of the currency. The US budget is not like a household budget and the US cannot go bankrupt despite what the media says. The US borrows from the FED . Who is the FED. It is the US. The US doesn’t borrow from China or Russia or anyone else and on one can forclose on the US. If there is low information out there it is not because the media is liberal it is because it is conservative. Murdock and Ailes are both conservatives and own most of the media so if you listen to the fat man on radio you now know he isn’t right.

  • Paul Lake

    The media is neither liberal nor conservative.
    It is the organ of the money elite and it serves them well. It
    employs distraction, misdirection and division. The Fed is
    certainly not the US. The Fed is the creature of the money
    elite, or the Money Power as they were known at the time of its
    creation, 100 years ago. This informal assemblage of interests
    is far broader than the owners of the big banks, now including the
    complex, but the Fed is the useful tool to them all. The Fed is
    the smokescreen by which money supply is expanded by counterfeit,
    serving the purposes of big borrowers (including the federal
    government) and the big banks by virtue of the fact that it enables
    the charging of interest on money created out of thin air, and of
    facilitating borrowing by reducing interest rates below those which
    would prevail if established in a free market where savings were the
    sole source of funds available for borrowing.
    This exorbitant
    privilege is not some magical wealth creation mechanism, rather it is
    a covert means of stealing purchasing power from actual producers of
    goods and services and from all users and holders of the currency
    through dilution of the purchasing power.

    The appetite for government securities is
    diminishing. Americans have less discretionary income to apply
    to savings and foreigners are not happy with the absurdly low rates,
    let alone their unhappiness with American foreign policy. This
    is probably the most significant factor explaining the size of Fed
    purchases through the QE program. The Fed is the buyer of
    sufficient federal debt to keep the bond rates at tolerable (for the
    federal government) rates. Now, virtually the only buying we
    see by foreigners is in response to short term security concerns, the
    so-called flight to quality. The seemingly inexorable money
    “printing” of the Fed is mirrored in many other
    jurisdicitions, delaying the day when a form of debt revulsion sweeps
    the markets and the bond vigilantes dump their holdings or demand
    significantly higher rates. If the government and Fed simply
    respond by printing even more, they will reinforce a mortal spiral
    which will end in collapse of the currency, effectively the
    bankruptcy of the federal government.

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