As every reader is well aware, an increasingly likely and imminent government shutdown materialized early this morning, the first since 1996.

Today marks the start of the 2014 fiscal year, which commenced without Congress authorizing discretionary spending for the year. Brace yourself for weeks of papering over the budget fights of the past four years.

House Republicans are squarely to blame for the shutdown. The sooner this is understood by the public, the less damage will be wrought in subsequent budget fights and, more importantly, the sooner the shutdown will end.

Without funding, large swathes of non-emergency government functions are suspended, non-emergency personnel are furloughed and emergency personnel will work without pay, as detailed in this post.

There are three prime factors complicating a resolution to this failure of governance, none of which seem likely to be resolved until public displeasure grows enough to force the hand of the party to blame.

  1. House Republicans’ repeated attempts to obstruct the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) implementation. They added language to various drafts of funding bills to “defund” the ACA or to repeal certain provisions—all of which are poison pills for both the Democratic Senate and the White House.
  2. There is dysfunction and deceit inside the House Republican caucus, largely of the GOP’s own making. The chickens are coming home to roost for denying the inevitable implementation of the ACA, not to mention repeatedly lying to their rank-and-file about political leverage. A bill passed by both chambers, signed into law by the sitting president, upheld by the Supreme Court and reaffirmed in the 2012 presidential election is not going to be upended three years after enactment by delusional House GOP demands and an untenable temper tantrum.
  3. Both parties remain at loggerheads over spending levels. This fight is largely related to opposing views on damaging sequestration cuts to non-defense spending. This policy gap largely explains why no progress on the twelve appropriations bills was made during the regular order budget process. A prime example: Republicans filibustered a transportation bill this summer, because they must be incapable of advancing non-defense funding levels at, below, or above sequestration levels.

The first two obstacles must be resolved within the House Republican caucus, likely with intensified infighting and with Speaker Boehner forced to rely on numerous Democratic votes to reopen the government.

Fuel to the Fire

While the Budget Control Act of 2011 (i.e., the debt ceiling deal) nominally set spending levels for fiscal 2014 (including sequestration), neither side wanted to stick to that agreement.

The Senate-passed budget proposed by Democrats added $37 billion to non-defense discretionary spending, while the Republican-run House passed a budget cutting an additional $52 billion, as Suzy Khimm recently chronicled.

While Democrats remain opposed to sequestration, the Senate bill last rejected by the House would temporarily continue funding at levels set by sequestration. The House bill sent to the Senate would similarly adopt sequestration levels but would also demand some variation of ACA obstructionism.

Sequestration itself was borne of GOP demands and is hailed by GOP leadership as a policy victory.

Anyone paying any attention to the budget fights should know that congressional Democrats and President Obama have repeatedly compromised. On the other hand, Greg Sargent poignantly argues that the GOP has lost touch with the definition of compromise.

As my former colleague Josh Bivens and I reported at length, congressional Republicans have repeatedly used every bit of available leverage to force cuts to domestic spending and advance other policy objectives. Past obstructionism has greatly impeded economic recovery, and this shutdown will be yet another obstacle.

Only the GOP has repeatedly discussed and threatened a government shutdown as a tactic to force policy concessions: not a single Democratic member of Congress advocated deliberately shutting down the government for political gain.

James Fallows gets it right:

“any story that presents the disagreements as a ‘standoff,’ a ‘showdown,’ a ‘failure of leadership,’ a sign of ‘partisan gridlock,’ or any of the other usual terms for political disagreement, represents a failure of journalism.”

Absolving House GOP leadership in any way for forcing a government shutdown increases the expected duration of this shutdown and the odds of a catastrophic outcome during the looming debt ceiling fight.