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Government shutdown is the Republicans' fault — period

Legislative brinkmanship is an affront to the Constitution tea partiers claim to revere

Thomas F. Schaller

11:18 AM EDT, October 1, 2013

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The federal government has shut down. And it's the Republicans' fault — period.

Let's stipulate that most congressional Republicans are truly worried about federal spending and the national debt and honestly believe the Affordable Care Act is bad for America.

Let's further stipulate that the spending and debt concerns of Republicans who have served in Congress at least a decade should be taken seriously, even if most of them voted for two costly wars, massive and un-offset income tax cuts, plus the huge Part D entitlement expansion to Medicare. Some of these Republicans — including the GOP's fiscal point man, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — later confessed regret that they let the national debt balloon from $4 trillion to $10 trillion during George W. Bush's presidency. And, of course, many tea party-affiliated congressional Republicans, initially elected in either 2010 or 2012, can be absolved of responsibility for fiscal choices made before their arrival in Washington.

Finally, let's stipulate that in our polarized country, with its semi-permanent state of divided national government, it is difficult to make major changes without taking drastic measures.

All that said, must congressional Republicans resort to legislative hostage-taking and other forms of political brinkmanship to push an agenda they have failed to achieve through the regular legislative process? Have we really reached the point where political rules, unspoken bipartisan norms or even the Constitution are no longer sacred?

Apparently so.

The Constitution clearly establishes that a bill becomes a law if it passes both chambers of Congress and is signed by the president or if his veto is overridden by two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers. In 2010, Democrats in Congress passed, and President Barack Obama signed, the Affordable Care Act. Love it or hate it, "Obamacare" is the law of the land, assented to by all three elected parts of the national government.

The Constitution's legislative process remains available to those who want to repeal it, of course. If unable to do so now, they can try to win elections and push to replace the law at some future point.

Tea partiers — who in 2010 helped the GOP capture the House but only the House — don't care about the Constitution, the law or American political tradition. After failing to flip the Senate in either 2010 or 2012, or to regain the White House in 2012, the GOP continues to control only the House.

These radicalized, tea party Republicans think 1 + 0 + 0 = 3. They are willing to hold Obamacare hostage to the federal budget process — and are threatening to tinker with the next debt ceiling vote, later this month — yet dare to call themselves "strict constructionists" who supposedly venerate literal adherence to the Constitution. (Remind me again where the 60-vote filibuster provision is located in our national charter? Oh right: Nowhere.)

Consider the potential implications of using the GOP's legislative tactics to gut existing laws. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats who controlled twice as many chambers of Congress in 2007 and 2008 as Republicans do now, would have been entitled to manipulate the budget deadline or a debt ceiling vote to, say, eliminate the Bush-era income tax cuts for the wealthy or repeal the USA Patriot Act, both of which the public disliked but, again, were law of the land.

And why stop there? By the radical Republicans' logic, any existing law may be reversed without actually passing a replacement law simply by resorting to legislative brinkmanship. The Republicans could in theory pass continuing resolutions that gut parts of the 1963 Clean Air Act, the 1921 Budget Control and Impoundment Act, or the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883.

Analyses of congressional voting patterns show that during the past three decades House Democrats have become twice as liberal but House Republicans have become six times more conservative. As Senator Reid quipped Monday night, the House GOP has "lost its mind."

Sane or not, it's clear that fault for the current government shutdown lies with the rump, radicalized, tea party-beholden congressional Republicans who have no regard for the legislative process, the country's credit rating, political traditions, or the U.S. Constitution they supposedly revere. Blame them.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com. Twitter: @schaller67.