WASHINGTON — Somewhere in America, a Model Congress moderator is giving thanks. Because civics lessons don’t get better than this.
This being the government shutdown dance happening in Washington right now.
Washington now is arguing over the 2010 budget. That’s an important aspect of the story this weekend. Of course, for the obvious reason: An impasse on funding the federal government will have immediate results on federal workers and Americans who receive government aid, including, most alarmingly, military families. But it also underscores the fact that Democrats neither passed nor proposed a budget last year, despite being the majority party on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
That puts some of the protests from the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, in some perspective. “Nobody is in total control,” the Nevada Democrat said this week. “It’s self-evident we don’t control Washington or we wouldn’t be having this problem.”
So there’s the spin and the blame-game aspect of the story. Be skeptical, because as I listen to much of the press coverage, there is a lot of buying into his spin, in particular. But when you get beyond that, there is an underlying reality about democracy in America, about the realities of democratic government that Reid touched upon, however disingenuously, in his case. However cynical we are, justifiably, about Washington — congressional approval ratings are routinely dismal — process and numbers aren’t always an excuse or an inside game. Backrooms aren’t always dark and shady. Sometimes they’re exactly the realities standing between you and your policy goals. Sometimes there are people trying to represent your will or otherwise be good stewards in 3am negotiations. Not everyone is corrupted by power. Not everyone is thinking about the next election.
Good stewardship is of the utmost priority for a lot of the people on Capitol Hill, as it was a driving force of much of the Tea Party movement we saw in force this past summer and November. Good stewardship is what led the Republicans to promise $100 billion in spending cuts. Good stewardship is what pressed the Republican Study Committee, the fiscally conservative caucus in the House, to push leadership to move faster in its insistence on it.
Good stewardship is part of what got a majority in the House to vote to defund Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion funder, which receives tax dollars under Title X family-planning appropriations, in a short-term “continuing resolution” vote earlier this year.
One of the under-covered stories of the Tea Party is that those who identify themselves as part of it tend to be pro-life. And even where they don’t, the question “Why?” is the one which resonates with them, not “Why not?” when it comes to whether or not we should be federally funding something. Good stewardship requires that. Good stewardship is at the heart of the principle of subsidiarity — smaller government isn’t just an ideological battle. It’s about how best to make sure the least of our brothers aren’t left out of policy debates and the daily life of America.
Good stewardship is also, frankly, a reason to think about the next election. A lot of the stories about the speaker of the House being at odds with members of his own caucus have truth to them. But it’s not because they’re on dramatically different pages. Differences are, at root, about expectations. A lot of what Republicans in the House campaigned on, they have and can and will vote and work on, but things can only move so far along the how-a-bill-comes-a-law conveyor belt.
As John Boehner, R-Ohio, is wont to say, he is speaker of one half of one-third of the federal government in Washington. And so you can vote to repeal a conscience-betraying, unsustainable comprehensive healthcare-reform plan, but you’re probably not going to get the Senate to do the same, and you’re not going to get the president to sign it. And you can vote to defund the long-protected Planned Parenthood, and even get some surprise senators to join you in the Senate, but, again, there are obstacles along the way to making it so. They need more votes, as just a fact of practical politics. They need reinforcements. A change in leadership in the Senate would help. A different president certainly would. On a multitude of issues.
Lying right below the headlines about the shutdown politics of the moment are the realities of the long haul. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., just introduced a bold budget with the support of GOP House leadership, tackling tough issues — namely some entitlement reform — that a lot of members of his caucus didn’t even campaign on, but are simply necessary. The Republican Policy Committee followed with something similar, but with even more of the toughness. Neither will likely come to fruition, but the majority in the House is doing their part to ask tough questions and challenge Washington to answer the call to responsible stewardship. At a time of such economic hardship and in the wake of such economic recklessness, the majority party in Washington owes Budget Committee Chairman Ryan and the House Republicans a serious response.
And so, all of what you’re hearing right now about Republicans insisting on “waging war on women” and their “health,” which Democrats hope is their winningmost talking point (and they may be right, at least in the short term), is only the beginning of a much longer debate. Even as it affects people’s lives in ways inconvenient and much more dramatic and unjust, this shutdown showdown we’ve been watching is but a skirmish in a longer battle over the way Washington works and spends. One that requires long-term persistence, long-term education, long-term participation, long-term support.
And about that supposed war on women’s health you have been hearing so much about and will continue to, no doubt: On Friday morning on the Senate floor, instead of voting to keep the military safe from any shutdown during this time of war, Harry Reid sang that tune. Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, while voicing skepticism at Reid’s insistence that Planned Parenthood funding is a non-negotiable for the speaker of the House (he’s never made that promise to his caucus), quickly rebutted: “You don’t have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your blood pressure or cholesterol checked,” he said. “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood.”
As it happens, most the short-term latter-day negotiating has not even been about Planned Parenthood, it’s just a compelling media talking point — especially when defenders misleadingly talk about mammograms which Planned Parenthood clinics do not, contrary to popular belief, do, but only refer women to. Much of the short-term negotiating has centered around the funding of abortions in the District of Columbia, extending policy to prohibit taxpayer funding of them. That’s been a mainstay bipartisan policy over the past three decades. A mainstream policy that both Bill Clinton and even this president have signed into law, that even this president voted for as senator. The president had the audacity to call a House vote on keeping the military safe from this shutdown debate “a distraction.” But much of the Planned Parenthood pink protective noise this week has been just that. As much as I and many pro-life groups and the majority of the House would like it, John Boehner never promised he could deliver on defunding Planned Parenthood at every step of the way. He’s made some bold pro-life promises, but given the realities of Washington at this moment, he didn’t make that one.
One party appears to be radical and stubborn on social policy in these negotiations. And it’s not actually the Republicans.
That’s a snapshot of but one of the stewardship battles to come. How are low-income women best helped? Is it by funding the nation’s largest abortion provider, a nearly billion-dollar organization, with plenty of wealthy boosters, which has been a major prop to the libertine sexual ethics that has created a confusing, miserable reality for so many men, women, children and families? One that is even willing — there is evidence — to aid and abet criminal activity? One that, as former Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson has so well illustrated in her book, Unplanned, isn’t making abortion rare, but necessary for the profits its business makes?
It’s unclear how this shutdown story will go down in history. But in a just history, House Republican leadership would get some credit for forcing a conversation in the most prudent, responsible way it could, given the realities of Washington. It’s leadership, and it is best received as an invitation for even more, on a bipartisan basis.
Kathryn Jean Lopez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.