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Why DC is all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about the looming partial government shutdown

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Congress is back in session today. It has four days to produce, pass through both chambers, and get the president to sign a plan to fund the Department of Homeland Security. So how's it kicking off the week? With a fourth vote in the Senate of a bill that's already failed a filibuster three times.

You'd at least expect the looming shutdown to be a top story in Washington. But it isn't. It doesn't crack the front page of today's Washington Post, and there's no mention of it on the section homepage for the New York Times' Politics section.

Even Politico's Playbook newsletter — as good an index of what DC is talking about as any — mentions the potential shutdown only in passing, in the context of ads an outside group plans to run against a handful of Republican senators if it happens. (The Times' equivalent, First Draft, does include a few paragraphs on the looming shutdown.)

A shutdown is virtually guaranteed at this point. Even if Congress did everything literally as quickly as possible, DHS would reach the point of shutdown before a funding bill made it to the president's desk. (Congress can patch the problem by passing a short-term "continuing resolution" to cover the gap if it wants.)

And even if it weren't technically impossible, Republicans and Democrats are in a partisan standoff over how to fund the department, and for weeks neither of them has been willing to budge. Democrats are demanding a "clean" bill that funds the department and doesn't do anything else. Conservative Republicans are demanding a bill that permanently blocks President Obama from taking executive action to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation, as a condition of funding. The bill passed by the House does the latter; the Senate has taken up the House's bill, Democrats and lone Republican Dean Heller have filibustered to block it.

So why isn't anyone panicking?

Part of the reason is policy: 85 percent of DHS employees will be going to work (without pay) if the department shuts down, and some members of Congress appear to believe that's an acceptable outcome (although the employees' unions disagree). But mostly, it's political.

Sure, the parties appear to be at an absolute standstill days before something happens that would severely impede the functioning of the US government. But we've seen this movie several times over the last few years. And every time, sooner or later, the stalemate gets resolved in the same way: Speaker of the House John Boehner caves and introduces a bill that gets the support of Democrats and moderate or party-loyalist Republicans to pass the House. (In the past, it's then sailed through a Democratic-controlled Senate; this year, with Republicans in charge of the Senate, it would need a coalition similar to the one the House has traditionally seen.)

Just to run down a few other times it's looked like the government's careening toward disaster, but Boehner ultimately gave in:

  • Summer 2011: The debt ceiling fight.* This isn't exactly the same as the others: instead of Boehner initially refusing to compromise and then giving in, he worked out a compromise with President Obama that would raise the debt ceiling in exchange for negotiated tax hikes and spending cuts, then was talked out of that compromise by then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. As a result, Congress ended up raising the debt ceiling by setting up the sequester (a set of mandatory spending cuts). But Eric Cantor isn't around anymore, and even if he were, intra-leadership conservative challenges to Boehner's authority weren't as strong after 2011. In recent months, in fact, Republican leadership has made it clear that their job is to enforce party loyalty from the top down.
  • January 2013: The fiscal cliff. At the end of December 2012, a whole stack of temporary policies (including the Bush tax cuts) were set to expire at the same time — which economists predicted would combine to shock the US into a recession. But as the expiration date loomed, Republicans refused to consider any plan that would continue any of these policies while increasing marginal tax rates by even a cent. Congress barely went over the fiscal cliff, but managed to stop itself on the way down. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Vice President Joe Biden worked out a deal (including tax increases) that the Senate passed on New Year's morning 2013. Boehner, despite previous promises not to bring up any bill that violated the "Hastert rule" and didn't have the support of a majority of Republicans, brought the Senate deal up for a vote later that day, where it passed with the support of Democrats and a minority of Republicans.
  • January 2013: Hurricane Sandy relief. Right after the fiscal cliff showdown, Boehner was forced to break the Hastert Rule again — this time for a bill that would provide disaster-recovery funds to northeastern states hit by November 2012's Hurricane Sandy. At the end of the 110th Congress on January 1st (right after the fiscal-cliff deal), Boehner refused to bring up a Senate-passed relief bill because conservatives balked at more spending. But he was hammered by northeastern Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and within the week he'd agreed to bring up a bill in the new Congress. The series of caves on the Hastert rule in the first months of 2013 (at the end of November, he would break it again to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act) are what solidified Boehner's reputation in DC.
  • October 2013: Government shutdown. This is the worst-case scenario: the deadline for Congressional action came and went, and the federal government shut down for 16 days, before Speaker Boehner relented and allowed a bill to come to the floor that continued to fund the government without making changes to the Affordable Care Act and delaying its implementation for a year. But relent he did. The bill ultimately got about a third of House Republicans to join House Democrats in supporting it, practically sailing through the House.
  • January 2014: Another debt-ceiling increase. This one was relatively straightforward and drama-free. Republicans initially demanded that certain military pensions be restored as a condition of them raising the debt ceiling; Boehner and House leadership agreed to a "clean" raise instead.

You can look at the combined record of all of these and see Boehner as a spineless hypocrite, who keeps paying lip service to the conservative wing of his party and then refusing to take their demands seriously. Or you can see him as a statesman who repeatedly puts his party's agenda aside to keep the federal government functioning. It depends how you feel about the conservative demands to begin with. But it's not a value judgment to observe that when push comes to shove, John Boehner doesn't typically let things in government stop working — or at least not for very long. He lets bills pass through his chamber with minimal Republican support instead.

This doesn't mean DHS won't shut down at all. It might shut down briefly, just so Republicans feel they've made a point. And who knows, this time John Boehner might stick to his guns. But it's understandable that most of Washington doesn't consider that terribly likely.