Will the government shutdown really defuse the debt standoff?

Peter Weber
The Week
House Republicans believe they are standing up for what's right, which means there may be no end to their partisan sincerity.

The federal government had barely started shutting down early Tuesday morning when Slate's Matthew Yglesias pointed out a potential upside of the House-led exercise in budgetary nihilism. Sure, "I'm a little frustrated that this is happening," he says, but "a shutdown is better than a stopgap solution since it gives us the best chance of avoiding a debt ceiling disaster."

This has become a prominent argument on the wonkier side of the political left, and even among some Republicans. Maybe it's just something they tell themselves so they can sleep at night, but it has a certain logic.

SEE ALSO: Republicans should let ObamaCare destroy itself

The idea is that a significant portion of the House GOP caucus is determined to have a standoff over ObamaCare, and a government shutdown is "a relatively safe space for the showdown," says The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. "It's visible and dramatic enough that the GOP will feel the public's ire," but low-stakes enough to not blow up the economy.

"Better to shoot yourself in the foot than shoot yourself in the head" by defaulting on America's debt, Klein argues:

One reason Republicans in Congress aren't more concerned about the debt ceiling is markets aren't particularly concerned. But if Congress began exhibiting signs of real irresponsibility — like by shutting down the government — markets would get concerned in a hurry, and Republicans would begin getting calls from Wall Street and CEOs of major companies.... It's a mark of the insane and reckless turn in our politics that shutting down the government so one of our two major political parties can get the brinksmanship out of its system is emerging as the sober, responsible thing to do. But here we are. [Washington Post]

The Republican version of that argument, delivered by GOP lobbyist John Feehery, is a little gentler on the GOP. Demanding that Obama "repeal his signature legislative priority" or else is "a radical proposition," he says. But "maybe it's time to test that proposition, to lance the boil and to shut down the government for a while." He concludes:

A shutdown might get the rest of public engaged in the debate about the future of the country. It might get the Republicans to get their act together and unify around the Speaker. It might finally convince the President that he has no choice but to negotiate over the debt limit. And it might shake all of irresponsibility that currently grips Washington's policy makers, out of the system. [Feehery Theory]

The theory is that intransigent Tea Partiers will feel the heat if Republicans bear the brunt of the anger over the government shutdown — and so far, that seems plausible.

SEE ALSO: 10 things you need to know today: October 1, 2013

A new Quinnipiac poll is a disaster for the GOP: 72 percent of registered voters oppose shutting down the government over ObamaCare; 74 percent disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their job, versus a record-low 17 percent who approve; approval for ObamaCare is growing, albeit to a still net negative 45 percent approval, 47 percent disapproval; and Democrats have opened up a historically wide 9-point lead on the 2014 House generic ballot.

But Molly Ball at The Atlantic cautions against reading too much into these numbers. The idea that the minority of House Republicans intent on undermining ObamaCare will somehow blink in the face of bad poll numbers seems unlikely at best, she says. That theory didn't work when Obama was re-elected — if anything, Republicans "redoubled their efforts to thwart him" — because it fails to understand where the Tea Party faction is coming from, Ball argues:

To their opponents, they appear unreasonable, but what they really are is very, very sincere: They truly believe that, by committing to do anything to block a law they see as disastrous, they're standing up for what's right. That's not going to change because the Republican Party's poll numbers, already in the toilet, slip a little more, or because their constituents complain about closures of national parks. The Republicans who care about those things are already willing to pass government funding and debt-ceiling bills. But there aren't 218 of them. [Atlantic]

So what if she's right and "sincere" Tea Partiers do push the U.S. towards busting through the debt ceiling?

SEE ALSO: The government shutdown: What's next for Obama and the GOP?

If that's the case, University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner at Slate argues, Obama could just ignore Congress and raise the debt ceiling unilaterally:

As I have argued before, the president has the constitutional authority to lift the debt ceiling on his own. If Congress won't vote to do this, then it will have commanded him to spend vast sums on valued programs, but not given him enough money to do so. Where the president is given conflicting commands, he can use his discretion to resolve the conflict, bolstered here by his inherent administrative powers and his emergency powers to protect the nation, both sanctioned by constitutional tradition. Since a default on public debt would result in an economic catastrophe, he can borrow with or without Congress behind him. [Slate]

Other legal scholars are not so convinced. The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart walks through both sides of the legal argument, quoting Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, who says such unilateral action by the president "is just a formula for lawlessness and chaos." So the constitutional grounds seem anything but clear cut.

SEE ALSO: Watch Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly solve the government shutdown

This much is clear, however: This showdown could very quickly get very interesting, in a very uncomfortable way.

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