House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speaks with reporters after a House Republican Conference meeting at the U.S. Capitol Sept. 13, 2023. A government shutdown at the end of the month would be blamed on Republicans. (Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images)

The government shutdown is the stupidest legislative tactic ever conceived, with a perfect record of failure.  

The late 1995 to early 1996 Republican-led shutdown couldn’t force President Bill Clinton to swallow deep budget cuts. The 2013 Republican-led shutdown couldn’t force President Barack Obama to defund his signature health care program. The 2018 Democratic-led shutdown couldn’t force President Donald Trump to accept legislation protecting “Dreamers” from deportation. The late 2018/early 2019 Trumpled shutdown couldn’t force congressional Democrats to fund his border wall. 

A shutdown at the end of September would be the stupidest one yet—and the Republican Party will be wearing the proverbial dunce cap. 

Not even four months ago, President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy completed the hard work of forging a budget deal. The agreement capped nondefense discretionary spending over the next two years below the inflation rate; Fiscal Year 2024 spending would be nearly the same as the prior year, with the following year’s budget growing by only 1 percent. Congress ratified the deal with bipartisan votes in each chamber.  

Problem solved! Bipartisanship lives! The system works! Well, almost.  

The caps are intended to steer the appropriations process, in which a dozen bills specify how much individual government programs can spend in the fiscal year beginning in October. However, a smattering of far-right malcontents who never supported the Biden-McCarthy debt limit deal in the first place want to undo the agreement. They are demanding deep cuts that go well beyond the caps and additional measures, such as funding for a border wall and no more funding for Ukraine. (Politico describes the rabble-rousers on McCarthy’s right flank as an “amorphous group [which] isn’t in sync on what they want to extract from him.”)  

The outsized demands have paralyzed the House Republican Conference, which once had plans to pass individual appropriations bills crafted by the 12 appropriations subcommittees and avoid a singular, sprawling, last-minute “omnibus” spending package. With two weeks remaining before the end of the fiscal year, the House has passed only one of the 12 bills. This week, House Republicans shelved the spending bill covering the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration because of an intra-party divide over abortion pills. Plans to move the defense spending bill to the House floor have been scuttled over disagreements regarding the party’s overall appropriations strategy.  

Even if McCarthy gave the extremists everything they wanted and moved all 12 appropriations bills through the House, such party-line legislation would have no chance of clearing the Democratic-run Senate, let alone being signed into law by the Democratic president. Democrats won’t feel pressure to capitulate because the right-wing demands have neither the votes nor public support.  

For example, a February Fox News poll showed that a border wall evenly splits the electorate, mainly along party lines. A late August The Economist/YouGov poll found a mere 32 percent of voters want to decrease funding to Ukraine (with a 45 percent plurality supporting maintaining or increasing funding). In general, polling often shows support for theoretical cuts that collapses upon mentioning specifics.  

But even if the far-right proposals had broader support, we know that the public would recoil at using a government shutdown to secure them because it rightfully abhors taking the federal government hostage to advance policy goals. Invariably, a shutdown draws public attention not to the policy goals but to the hostage-taking. Government workers are furloughed, national parks are shuttered, and the economy takes a hit. The instigating party faces enormous pressure to fold, which it always does.  

Nearly everyone in Washington understands this. Brass-knuckled Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has long been comfortable with filibusters but not shutdowns. In 2014, McConnell bragged, “I am the guy that gets us out of shutdowns. It’s a failed policy.” Days ago, he publicly undercut far-right strategy to lowball spending bills, saying on the Senate floor, “That’s not going to be replicated in the Senate.” (The Senate appropriations bills, according to the Center for American Progress, “largely adhere” to the established spending caps.) 

McCarthy doesn’t want a shutdown, either. Last month, he told Fox News, “If we shut down, all of government shuts … down—investigations and everything else. It hurts the American public.”  

Because shutdowns are so unpopular, some instigators are trying to shift blame to the Democrats preemptively. Representative Bob Good of Virginia, at a House Freedom Caucus event this week, called on McCarthy to “pass our spending bills advancing Republican priorities … and then if [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer wants another Schumer shutdown, let him have it and let him defend it.”  

But another instigator, Representative Chip Roy, has already betrayed any attempt to blame Democrats. “There will be blowback, and I don’t give a damn,” Roy told Politico. “I can promise you the people that I represent are 100 percent on board with going full-scale, full-tilt at stopping the continued status quo.” And on the social media platform X, responding to a House Republican opponent of shutdowns, Roy praised the 2013 shutdown: “[W]e won 247 seats (+13) in 2014 after… what do you call it… fighting by @tedcruz.”  

Roy leaves out that public approval of the Republican Party hit record lows in October 2013 after the shutdown—in Gallup polling, favorable perception of the GOP dropped below 30 percent for the only time between 1992 and 2022. Yes, Republicans recovered in time for the November 2014 midterm elections, but that’s because they did not provoke another shutdown in October 2014. 

Blame-shifting always fails anyway. The party putting extraneous conditions on keeping the government open is the party that takes the hit when Yellowstone closes. 

So, if the Democratic leadership doesn’t want a shutdown, and the Republican leadership doesn’t want a shutdown, why might we get a shutdown? The only way is if McCarthy lets the far-right splinter faction dictate what he brings to the House floor.  

It’s too late for all 12 individual appropriations bills to pass by the September 30 deadline. Keeping the government open without interruption will require stopgap legislation, which Good, Roy, and their crew say they’ll oppose. But McCarthy is not obligated to achieve Republican unanimity before greenlighting legislation. He did not when he successfully moved the debt limit deal with 149 Republicans and 165 Democrats in the majority, leaving behind 71 Republicans and 46 Democrats. He does not need Good and Roy’s blessing now.  

To be fair to McCarthy, he has reason to move gingerly. He would prefer to pass party-line spending bills before a final compromise, giving him leverage in negotiations with the Senate. And a rush to compromise, even on a stopgap bill, could trigger a vote ousting him, as Representative Matt Gaetz is openly threatening. McCarthy may believe he can’t pass compromise legislation and keep his job unless he first allows a shutdown. 

But McCarthy also appears to recognize that Gaetz has been threatening to take down McCarthy all year, only to sheath his sword. Gaetz flinched from denying McCarthy the gavel in January and proved powerless to stop the debt limit deal in June. For the Florida Republican to ever follow through on his threats would mean owning more responsibility for who becomes speaker and all the governing challenges that entails. On Monday, after Gaetz suggested a “motion to vacate” the speaker’s chair could come soon, McCarthy shrugged, “He should just go ahead and do it. Look, Matt’s Matt.” 

While it’s easy to mock McCarthy’s inconsistent, spineless behavior, I see a method to his madness. He leads a fractured conference with a paper-thin majority and a nihilistic faction. But McCarthy is not a nihilist. At the onset of the debt limit drama, I argued that McCarthy’s rhetoric indicated he would negotiate with Biden in good faith and marginalize the far right to avoid a breach of the debt limit, which proved true. Similarly, I presume he knows a shutdown is bad for America and Republicans. He wants to avoid a shutdown or limit one to a few days. 

But if a shutdown happens, there should be no confusion about who is to blame—the Republican extremists who are okay with furloughing meat inspectors and the speaker too afraid of losing his job to put them in their place swiftly.  

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.