What "The Washington Post" Doesn't Understand About the Looming Government Shutdown

One of the biggest problems of reporting on our dysfunctional politics has been the reflexive tendency in "mainstream" media to balance, via what is increasingly false equivalence. A glaring example was a front-page, above-the-fold story in Saturday's Washington Post by Lori Montgomery and Rosalind S. Helderman, titled (in the print edition, though not on the web), "Gloom Grows as Congress Feuds." The story was about the looming showdown, and possible government shutdown, over disaster relief funding. The piece makes sure to include a comment from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor blaming Democrats, ends with a comment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blaming Republicans, and includes a comment from an independent analyst blaming both.

Actually, the piece does not provide total equivalence and balance. In the early part of the article, while noting that the overall spending limits agreed to in the debt limit deal were still intact, the authors assert that "Democrats decided to pick a fight over a side issue: an insistence by the GOP to pay for more disaster relief funding by cutting a popular auto-industry loan program. Republicans refused to back down."

Here is the reality. Congress's policy towards disaster relief has always been that money is allocated in the budget, and if more is required because there are more or deeper disasters, Congress provides it in supplemental funding. The roots of this showdown go back to Cantor announcing on August 25, while Hurricane Irene wreaked havoc, that he would break precedent and demand offsets for recovery expenditures. Cantor and his House Republicans then wrote their continuing resolution for this year's appropriations to take money from popular research programs to pay for the disaster relief, and insisted that the Senate accept their plan.

If the insistence on offsets is unprecedented, the ploy is not--government by hostage-taking and blackmail has become standard operating procedure for congressional Republicans. That was the approach in the debt limit negotiations, and in the move by Transportation Committee Chair John Mica before the August recess to get his way on weakening unions and shutting down subsidies for small airports or provoke a shutdown of the FAA. In the latter case, the FAA was indeed shuttered, at a cost to the government (and an addition to the deficit) of $400 million in lost revenues, along with a slew of furloughed construction workers at the height of the season.

Even veteran congressional reporters were lulled in recent weeks into a false sense of complacency by lawmakers over whether there was any chance of a shutdown. Carl Hulse of The New York Times wrote in late August, "members of both parties say the bipartisan compromise on overall spending makes it unlikely that an impasse will push Congress back to the brink of closing the government in a repeat of the April showdown that ended just hours before federal money ran out. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30." But the warning signs were there, in Cantor's declaration and in a series of riders attached to individual House appropriations bills to cripple environmental regulations, hamper implementation of health reform, and bollix up Dodd-Frank.

And, of course, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's ebullient assertion after the debt limit impasse that holding the debt limit hostage would now become standard underscored the GOP strategy for governing in the Obama era. McConnell was ebullient because, from his perspective, the hostage-taking worked: Republicans could make non-negotiable demands, threatening to unleash catastrophe if they were not met, and count on Democrats caving to avoid tumult in the country. On the issue of disaster relief, Democrats are saying, for the first time, that they will no longer appease blackmail.

Did Democrats "pick a fight," as The Washington Post phrased it? Imagine if Montgomery and Helderman's editor had demanded that they deliberately slant a story to benefit an advertiser, and they and the rest of the reporting staff responded by walking out and shutting down the paper in protest. Would it be accurate to say that Washington Post reporters picked a fight?

To be sure, Eric Cantor has a point. Congress routinely appropriates less money for disaster relief than is necessary--and the allocations should be enhanced in an era of climate change that is bringing more extremes in weather. At the same time, we could use a reexamination of flawed policies like federally guaranteed flood insurance, which has taxpayers paying to rebuild multi-million-dollar vacation housing for the rich, who build in vulnerable areas on the shoreline.

But there are time-honored ways of doing this without threatening to bring the government to a halt. Those time-honored ways are no longer honored; they have been replaced by threats and hostages. And not in an equal fashion by both parties.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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