Why I Didn’t Write About the Shutdown That Wasn’t

In e-mail a couple of you wondered why I didn’t participate in Shutdown-mania last week, while all the cool kids were kvetching about it and explaining why it would be a politically horrible event for [insert whichever politician and/or party they liked the least], and everything would be terrible and there would be babies eaten and kittens set on fire, etc.

Here’s why. You know when you’re at a club, or in high school, and you see two douchebags with their douchebag entourages, and the douchebags look like they’re going to get into it, and their entourages are egging them on, so they start taunting each other, and then maybe there’s a shove or two, and then a couple of the more sensible friends in either entourage make a show of restraining their pals and nothing much actually happens?

Yes, well. When douchebags start taunting and shoving, the point is not to actually get into a fight, the point is to make a sufficient show for the douchebag entourages so that when the sensible friends intervene, everyone can walk away thinking that their side won the exchange. You can’t walk away before the shoving happens, because then everyone knows you’ve lost, and then there goes your entourage. So: Taunt, shove, restrain, everyone “wins.”

Welcome to shutdown 2011.

And, I don’t know. I just didn’t have much interest in the posture theater this time around. At most I was mildly interested to see whether the “sensible friends” would act in this scenario, since the last time this happened in Congress — you’ll recall 1995’s shutdown, no doubt — the sensible friends on the GOP side forgot to intervene, and their appointed posturing douchebag leader that time around, Newt Gingrich, either got sucker-punched by Bill Clinton or ended up sucker-punching himself (depending on who’s telling the story). But I was only mildly interested because John Boehner, bless his heart, isn’t Newt Gingrich. I imagine he was delighted to have been restrained at the end.

I do think it’s ridiculous that we had to have this sort of posture theater, but that’s the way of the political landscape at the moment, so, fine, folks, have your fun. But at the end of the day (the very end of it, in this case), everyone walked away from a stupid fight being able to claim “victory” in one way or another. Nice for them, I suppose. A better victory would be a government with elected officials who don’t feel required to act like douchebags in a club, or in high school. Something for us all to keep in mind the next time elections roll around.

48 Comments on “Why I Didn’t Write About the Shutdown That Wasn’t”

  1. It’s unfortunate that in the scuffle, one side was allowed to take and beat a hostage from the other side. By this I mean that the rights of self-determination for the residents of the District of Columbia were used as a bargaining chip, in the douchebaggery process.

    It’s sad. And it makes me hates the douches all the more.

  2. Pity that both parties thought that not losing face was more important than the welfare of the country. But that happens a lot lately.

    I keep trying to tell people, it isn’t fascist republicans or socialist democrats that are going to destroy the country, it’s partisan hatred.

  3. A agree with JJS. Neither party seems to comprehend that they weren’t elected for a red or blue victory but rather because people thought they might actually change things for the better. Elaborate demonstrations and grand gestures are all well and good, but I’m disgusted that both sides were quite willing to run the nation off a cliff if the other guy didn’t back down first.

  4. Of course part of the problem is that the two sides have diffent views of what “change things for the better” means.

    And we also must recognize that one of the participants failed to do their job when they should have. Had they done what they were paid to do, this particular fight wouldn’t have happened at all.

    Keep that in mind when elections roll around.

  5. At this point the douchebaggery seems ingrained in the political system of the USA as a whole. And I don’t know what you could do to change *that* short of setting the Constitution on fire and writing a new one – something which, in last years’ Q&A week, Scalzi was reluctant to do. If it were me setting things to rights the streets of Washington would be lined with impaled corpses … so it’s probably a good thing I’m not in charge. It’s strange how quickly setting things to rights becomes setting them to wrongs …

  6. Mmm. I thinking you’re missing a point here, John. The Republicans started the negotiations with an offer to cut $33 billion, without any policy riders. The Democrats offered $10 billion. How do you get from there to $39 billion and a poke in the eye to DC without some pretty catastrophic mishandling by the Democrats? The fact that the government didn’t shut down, yeah, well, that’s a good thing; but it could have been achieved without giving the whole store away had Obama not done what he always does, namely concede preemptively. If he were a union negotiator his membership would DTMFA, to use Dan Savage’s abbreviation.

  7. It seems to me that one set of douchebags has a vested interest in claiming that violence is the only solution to any problem. The other douchebags on the other hand don’t actually want to fight and arrange for the first douche to get to beat the AV club twice a week as a comprimise.

  8. Theophylact:

    “but it could have been achieved without giving the whole store away had Obama not done what he always does, namely concede preemptively.”

    I think the Democratic line on that one is not to look at how much was cut, but from where it was cut (and from where it wasn’t — for example, from Planned Parenthood funding). I haven’t gone through the agreement line by line to figure out if that argument holds water, mind you.

  9. I couldn’t agree with your post more, John. I’m to the point now where if I were offered the chance to vote out every elected official in Washington and replace them with flying monkeys, I would seriously consider it.

  10. being one of those loathed federal employees, all i can say is that this performance of the posture theater looked an awful lot like a rehearsal to me–awaiting the opening night of the 2012 budget battle. am i saving up for being “furloughed” then? you betcha.

  11. Had there been a shutdown today essential services would have been continued even though constitutionally there is no right to fund anything absent a signed appropriations bill or continuing appropriation resolutions. So had there been a shutdown our government with complicity from both sides would have been acting UNconstitutionally. To be constitutional all Federal workers would have to sit at home unpaid including Congress, the President, the air traffic controllers, and all the rest. So, yes, it is a good thing they reached their deal last night. I hate unconsitutional government, don’t you? Good for the douchebags.

    Our real problem is our organizational structure that allows for divided government. Oh, that we had a parlimentary system like the UK, Canada, Australia, etc. Not perfect systems but when you have a government it is by definition unified even if a coalition government. And if you don’t have a government, well then, the elections are only five weeks at way at most. Almost enough to make me want to emigrate. In the meantime, I shall turn off the cable news the next few days while they dissect endlessly what happened last night.

  12. As a lifelong resident of the Washington Metropolitan Area with a family full of government workers, I’ve seen this happen just often enough to sigh and wait out the pushing and the shoving. If I recall correctly, it usually results in a day or two off for government workers who end up getting paid because the cost of figuring out the pay differential is too high to bother. (Yes, at least one was several weeks, but that’s not usual.)

    It’s ALWAYS about grandstanding.

  13. As a former civil serpent…I endured about 3 or 4 of these standoffs before I retired…The first one scared me, because I had just bought a house…after that I became quite “cranky” of politics as usual..especially as congress considers itself as “essential personnel”. Sometimes I wonder if televising congress deliberations was such a good idea…it gives the riff raff a chance to bandstand…

  14. While I agree with most of what you say here, John, I think we’ll need a new Constitution to fix the problem. Unfortunately that’s likely to be a cure worse than the disease.

    I want to live in the GOOD timeline, please. Anyone know how I can get there?

  15. @Gary Willis

    Re: Canada: Our government is just as fucked as yours, and has been doing its damnedest to emulate the US in recent years. We are by no means a positive example.

  16. Mr Willis: I’m afraid you slightly overstated things. The majority interpretation of the “no diminishment” clauses means that the President, Vice-President, Senators, Congressdouchebags, and Article III judges (Supreme Court, US Court of Appeals, US District Court… but not territorial judges, bankruptcy judges, or Tax Court, Court of Claims, or Court of International Trade judges, who are Article I employees of Congress) would continue to get paid during any shutdown. That is, those (with the exception of the judges) who are responsible for the shutdown would continue to be paid… and nobody else.

    Perhaps George Takei should slightly raise the level of government officials who are officially considered "douchebags". To slightly paraphrase him, “no person, let alone an elected official, no matter what their personal or religious beliefs, should ever wish destruction upon every person working for the government except themselves.” Shutting down the entire government because one miniscule part of it is engaging in a policy with which one disagrees, as a member of a legislative body, is douchebaggery of the douchiest sort (and for your neoquasilibertarians out there, just substitute “private collective” for “government”).

  17. Actually, the douchebags get several more bites at the apple, not only the 2012 budget but the debt limit votes are coming up. So, the opportunities for amateur abortionists and polluting industries still awaits.

  18. One old crank I know suggested that they would never let the government shut down because they were afraid to let people see how unnecessary the government really is. And he would have been right since it was their intention to keep “essential” services up and running. If they really let the whole government shut down, then all the old farts on Social Security and Medicare (who resent the idea of welfare, unemployment benefits or government=sponsored health care for everyone else) would suddenly discover that they are in fact socialists.

  19. @19 Balfour I still envy your quick elections when you dismiss parliment and call them. We elect a President, talk about how he won for a year and a half, then crank up the next election fully two years before it happens. I suffer voter fatigue not from voting but from listening to continuous talk about how I might vote when the time comes.

    @21 Petit Point conceded. Never liked that no diminishment language. But you know, the majority interpretation could be wrong. The no funds language could be seen to prevail because no money means no money to write a paycheck period. Maybe no diminishment only refers to a paycheck IF written.

  20. @24 Gary Willis
    Having the possibility of an election at any moment doesn’t improve the chattering class much. Instead they talk constantly about whether it would be an advantageous time to have an election, whether the PM will call the election or if it is more advantageous for them to force the other parties to a non-confidence vote by proposing extreme legislation, whether forming a coalition government is immoral (According to our current PM it is fine when he does it but a horrible subversion of democracy when others discuss it), etc. Basically political commentators need to justify their existence and pay when they are actually not needed so they will invent something to discuss to fill up the hours they are alloted.

  21. @24 Gary Willis: It’s still not a net improvement. Our government is reduced to a bad Verizon commercial. “Will you vote for us now?”, “How about now?”, “And now?”, “How about now?”… No governing actually gets done and the political environment doesn’t change, calling or forcing an election just becomes a delay tactic like any other. Maybe if our politicians figured out the reason for the constant minority governments is that in general Canadians don’t trust any of the parties with a majority things would change. But I don’t see that happening soon.

  22. The description in the original post brings to mind a scene from ‘Zoe’s Tale’…

    So who’s gonna lose their dessert?

  23. Henry David Thoreau – “That government is best which governs least.”

    I remember seeing NYSE numbers during one of the previous shutdowns showing our economy did pretty damn well when it didn’t have parasitic bureaucrats holding it back … of course, those numbers all nose-dived as soon as Congress got back into gear …

    Ancient joke – “If ‘pro’ is the opposite of ‘con’, what’s the opposite of ‘progress’?”

  24. It probably costs millions of dollars in people having to prepare their workplaces to be secure, etc. And meetings among the federal employees, etc. And people being terrified that they would not be able to pay their bills because on furlough you may be able to get unemployment, but that’s a fraction of most salaries and takes a couple of weeks for it to start in most states.

    I was “lucky,” I’m “exempt.” Which would have meant I had to go to work but would not get a paycheck until the bill was authorized. At least it doesn’t cost much gas to get to work.

  25. It’s democracy at work. It’s supposed to be confrontational. that’s a feature, not a bug.
    Yes, it can get ugly at times, it can get rough and tumble. Mean words are spoken. But that’s nothing compared to the plastic-smile conformity that some people yearn for, where everyone agrees to agree in the name of civility, dissenting voices are stifled, and disagreement is discouraged to preserve the ‘correct’ status quo.

    Those societies are the stuff of sci-fi dystopias.

    The never-ending contest of ideas is a great thing. Democracy is a simple, powerful idea; but for it to work, we have to stomach the built-in conflict that it brings.

  26. I got really angry personally. They were holding women’s health, DC self-governance, the public’s access to government services, and me hostage. I’m one of the 800K non-exempt federal employees who was facing days, weeks, or months without any pay. In the past, they’ve made that up, but this time both sides were posturing for their constituents by talking tough about how we should shoulder the burden and take the hit gracefully. I agree that it was wrong that soldiers’ families would be facing the choice between food and rent and that the government owes them better, but my kids need food and a place to sleep, too.

    As a voter, I’ve been upset for a long time about our nation’s leaders in all three branches making their work about political scores and not about governance. I know that’s the way government always goes, but it seems to me that the proportion of politics to productivity has gotten a lot worse and that the kids around the shoving match are taking a lot more collateral damage than we’ve had. The news media encourage it by covering the scrum and not the real consequences of it; I’m surprised they don’t have national news on the sports desk. Even non-political social issues are more and more referred to how blue or red that area is. What’s next? A reality show of Maryland declaring war on Ohio, with a panel of celebrity judges?

    Yes, I’m cranky.

  27. I could argue that the GOP was doing a good cop/bad cop routine with Boehner claiming that he was the rational one but had the pitch-forks and torches crowd to appease; except that I don’t think he is in that deep control. We’ve seen this movie before.

    As for this being democracy in action this all looks more like a quasi-coup from the House; no one elected Boehner protector of the republic that I noticed.. We keep flirting with fascism in this country and that’s the most disturbing thing.

  28. I don’t know why everyone was so upset about a potential shutdown. I mean, we all know they (Congresspeople) get paid to do nothing. They were just wanting to make it official.

  29. Anton Nym – you made me remember why I loved West Wing so much: there was a strong President who actually seemed to HAVE power, who didn’t take any lip from disrespectful Congressmen and religious leaders AND Aaron Sorkin was there to write a logical solution to the problems. Sometimes I wish I’d never had a glimpse into what COULD be knowing that it will never be that good, ever. No matter which douchebag, Red or Blue, is in power.

  30. Coming from a Florida perspective, at least there IS an opposition that can have some say in moderating things. We’ve got a rabid nutcase for Governor and supermajorities in both our House and Senate of GOPer’s trying to out-Tea Party each other, who are making us long for the days of Jeb Bush (I’m NOT kidding!).

    I wish the President would quit surrendering on every issue, though I’m glad he finally got around to standing up for Planned Parenthood (though I’d like to know what went on the chopping block instead).

  31. Ruth, you nailed it. I loved ‘West Wing’ but all the real world candidates (and Presidents) since have come up short against Jed Bartlett.

    Then again, as philosophers have said, the difference between history and fiction is, history tells us what happened, fiction tells us what *should* happen.

  32. It seems to me that Scalzi’s representative, Boehner, is indeed glad to be restrained. It seems to me that he’s the one saying “let’s deal” while a large portion of his caucus is saying “Dude, we shouldn’t just settle for getting more then we could have dreamed of when this started, LET’S DEMAND THE MOON TOO! WITH CREAMED SUGAR ON TOP!” Thereby increasing the odds of shutdown and losing all they had gained.

    I have no idea if creamed sugar exists. But it should. We could put it on top of the moon for a delightful fluffy dessert.

  33. Dump the electoral college.
    Make all elections instant runoff ballots.
    and maybe some of this BS would go away.

  34. @Paula,
    It’s even worse for any overseas Federal employees who get furloughed (though many more of them do get classified as essential due to the national security risks involved). We cannot even claim unemployment until we physically return to the US, which we are generally not allowed to do while we are at post during a shutdown. We have to live completely on whatever savings we might have.

  35. Oh, well… I’m sure we can all enjoy the next around of anguish from Congress-creatures wondering why they’re about as popular as a whorehouse where all the tarts have a particularly robust strain of clap.

  36. #28 cerement — You quoted Thoreau on the the best government being that which governs least. Should I win the lottery, I’d like to offer you and all libertarian members of Congress a free trip to Somalia to see very limited government in action. In fact, that country is just crying out for a congressional fact-finding delegation.

    FYI, I commend to your attention a DOD report (out of one of the War Colleges?) concluding that Somali piracy is due to illegal global overfishing in Somali waters which made it impossible for the fishermen to continue to sustain themselves through their traditional occupation.

  37. This kind of posturing happens all the time. It has happened since the beginning of the republic. This leads me to believe its the public and not the small number of people in elected office at fault. No matter who gets elected there is always BS and posturing. The public eats it up for the most part. Conservatives believe the BS posturing from candidates they like, then complain about what the ones they don’t. Liberals do the same thing.

    If being honest and straight forward satisfied the public, politicians would do it. Politicians have jobs that they want to keep. Most of them are not independently wealthy. They use the income to support their families. Most people will do what is necessary to keep their jobs.

    So it is the public’s fault for creating an environment where our employees have to be full of it all the time in order to keep their jobs. Typically the farther people get from the center, the less rational they get. Since the left wingers and right wingers are the bases of both parties, they do the bulk of the volunteer work for the candidates, and give the bulk of the donations, politicians have to pander to irrational people to keep their jobs.

  38. lttp here, but you nailed it. A shutdown was extremely unlikely seeing as both sides had way too much face to lose if it happened.

  39. How is a national debt of 14.2 trillion and counting a victory? For 38.5 billion they cut from the current rate of madness? That comes to less than three tenths of one percent of said debt. If you’re thinking I should be looking at it from a yearly perspective, well, sure! Our 14.2 trillion dollar deficit will now continue to grow by 1.25 trillion per year instead of, **thanks to our awesome leaders**, 1.29 trillion per year.

    The bickering between the two parties is all the freedom they have to express themselves behind and between piles of corporate funding. While choosing between Democrats and Republicans may have worked prior to the Jovian Fortunes now amassed by large corporations, these days it’s historical memory that supports what is, for the most part, choosing the left hand or the right hand – different hand, same person (yeah, a little clumsy, but I’m already running past my lunch hour and I have to hurry!). Corporations now have enough money to buy both sides and work with the winner. Corporations now spend any amount they want on elections, and they own the very ground most Americans rely on to be informed: mainstream media. They are also global entities – does the welfare of any single country matter to a global corporation’s bottom line? If a global corporation makes money but causes the economic collapse of a nation, would it not pursue profit? Of course it would – it’s good business. Rotten for the rest of us, though.

    Elections must be funded strictly by tax dollars – same amount for all. State their case and get elected, or not, based on actually representing the wish of the majority. At least, I think it would be getter that way….

  40. Yeah, I had douchebags in mind when I voted AGAINST Obama and the change that never happened

  41. Loved the post. My favorite analogy to what happened is an NBA “fight” (in baseball fights, people sometimes actually get hit and people always get tackled, so the NBA is better).
    As for the West Wing series that some people have commented on: President Obabma IS Jed Bartlett or easily the closest we’re ever likely to see. He even borrowed Bartlett’s campaign slogan.

  42. I don’t know, I think you are too attached to this “both sides are equally bad” narrative and this idea that your Congressman is a better person than he is, John. This isn’t about spending; PP, NPR, and the National Endowment for the Arts cost mere pennies per taxpayer. If they were serious about cutting spending, they’d slash the bloated defense budget. Republicans are just going after things they’ve never liked, using the budget as a (petty) excuse. John Boehner particularly has had a long-standing crusade against reproductive rights. If he was truly interested in compromise, he would have given up all those things a lot sooner; he knows how unnecessary they are to actually solving the budget crisis. But that’s not what matters.

    Don’t forget whose idea the government shutdown was: the Republicans’ idea. What were the Democrats supposed to do to not be considered “douchebags” as well – give in completely? You can’t blame them for recognizing this for what it is – a particularly childish and petulant way for the Republicans to circumvent the fact that their riders would fail in the Senate – and deciding, for once, that they were not going to take it.

    Boehner did give in eventually, but because he eventually realized that most people are not the Tea Party, that most people would find his insistence on pushing through such unpopular riders in the face of a government shutdown to be selfish and immoral, and that he’d gotten some compromises so it was at least a partial Republican victory. It shows just how incredibly insulated and disconnected from reality his former supporters are that they are threatening to primary him for showing the bare minimum of human decency in this situation.

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