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Asked in the aftermath of the October 2013 government shutdown if another shutdown could happen in 2014, then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) observed that “there’s no education in the second kick of a mule.” Because the public had blamed Republicans for shutdowns in both 1995-6 and 2013, McConnell suggested that Republicans had learned their lesson: Shutdowns are futile.

Let’s say that McConnell is correct about mule kicks. (I am not eager to test his hypothesis.) If so, why are Republicans again threatening to shut down the government, this time over the issue of funding Planned Parenthood? Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page derided previous GOP efforts to defund Obamacare (2013) and the Department of Homeland Security (2015) as box canyon defeats.

[Get ready: Experts say a government shutdown is now even more likely]

Others have addressed the chances of a shutdown and how we got to this point. Still, the question remains: why again? Why does Congress find itself once again facing the prospects of failing to fund the government? Why are hard-core conservatives in the House and Senate threatening to take the government hostage in pursuit of a policy priority — even with partisan and policy losses fresh in their minds?

Several considerations come to mind:

First, conditions are ripe for continued GOP defections from party leaders’ agendas. Call it the plague of large majorities.

Republicans in November celebrated the largest GOP House majority since the late 1920s. But large majorities are not all they’re cracked up to be. They tend to be more diverse, more fractured — as evidenced by the newly organized Freedom Caucus instigating the move to defund Planned Parenthood. A quick glance at the makeup of the Freedom Caucus drives home ideological divisions within the GOP conference.

The figure below shows that the Freedom Caucus roster (as reported by Roll Call in the summer) is significantly more conservative than the rest of the GOP conference. So, too, are the GOP lawmakers who were rolled when their party finally gave in during the winter to fund homeland security programs.


Lawmakers’ ideology measured by Lewis et. al.’s Weekly Common Space DW-NOMINATE scores, Aug. 8, 2015, update. See http://voteview.com/Weekly_Constant_Space_DW-NOMINATE_Scores.htm. (Figure by Sarah Binder/Monkey Cage)

Party size matters: The larger the majority’s margin, the less costly for any individual lawmaker to break ranks. For example, the number of defectors on the vote to return John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the speakership more than doubled between 2013 and 2015. Perhaps opposition grew. But just as likely, the cost of challenging the Speaker declined: with a larger majority, the conference could afford more defections without upsetting the conference’s commitment to reelect Boehner. If so, joining a rebellious coalition to challenge party leaders by threatening to shut down the government over narrow policy demands remains an attractive strategy.

Second, as David Mayhew long ago observedthe “electoral payment [for members of Congress] is for positions rather than for effects.” A politician’s supporters more likely hold lawmakers accountable for the positions they take than for policy outcomes that result. In other words, holding governing funding hostage to defunding Obamacare, homeland security, and Planned Parenthood makes perfect sense for a House member playing to his or her partisan base rather than to the broader public.

Viewed in this light, there’s definitely education in the second kick of a mule: Conservative Republicans could see such past episodes as political successes even if the party brand name took a beating at the time. GOP electoral gains in 2014 surely reinforce such positive perceptions. Heading down into the box canyon — not getting out — is the whole point.  

Third, the rules of the game encourage rebellious behavior by small factions in both chambers. It is now old hat to observe that Republican majorities need Democratic votes to secure supermajorities for passage in the Senate. But McConnell can make a bipartisan coalition without the votes of Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Rand Paul (R-Ky.) from the far right of his conference, lawmakers who would support defunding Planned Parenthood even at the cost of shutting down the government.

Ironically, House rules also encourage conservatives to take government funding hostage. To be sure, House rules allow cohesive majorities to pass bills without any votes from the minority. But in each past battle over must-pass measures to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling, Democrats came to the rescue when significant numbers of Republicans refused to vote for leader-negotiated compromise.

Republicans by now have surely learned that their leaders are ultimately likely to cave to move toward the middle — to avoid a Senate filibuster or a presidential veto. Again, there is indeed education in the second kick of the mule: refusing to compromise forces leaders to the center, but allows rebels to avoid blame for leaders’ concessions.

Eventually, House party leaders find Democratic votes to secure must-pass bills, freeing a majority of their conference to vote against the deal. Party leaders and more moderate Republicans show their governing instincts while rank and file claim credit for sticking to their principles. Win-win!

[GOP tries to avert shutdown as right spoils for Planned Parenthood fight]

Understanding why Republicans might go back into the box canyon doesn’t tell us the chances that they will. I tend to think that the conflict over Planned Parenthood could be resolved relatively quickly. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already named her price: if GOP leaders publicly commit to negotiations to loosen the 2011 spending caps that are due to be tightened in fiscal year 2016.

In fact, such negotiations are arguably more important to Democrats than to Republicans. The Ryan-Murray 2o13 budget deal that raised spending caps for two years is about to expire, which allows stricter spending caps under the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) to kick in. At stake are tough cuts to both domestic and defense discretionary spending. However, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, backdoor defense spending via the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO account) relieves some pressure on Republicans to negotiate with Democrats to relieve the caps (since OCO funds are exempt from cuts under the BCA).

In the absence of a new deal, lawmakers could write a full year continuing resolution (“CR”) that continues last year’s funding levels but would be subject to sequestration cuts under the 2011 BCA; OCO funds however would lessen the pain on the defense side of the ledger, leaving Democrats’ domestic programs to bear a disproportionate brunt of the cuts.

Democrats have a strong incentive to get Republicans to the negotiating table in the fall. Although Democrats arguably have more to gain from a deal, they also have a Democratic filibuster and presidential veto on their side. My hunch is that if there are fireworks in Congress in the fall over funding the government, the more dramatic brinkmanship could occur later over renegotiating the BCA caps rather than over a half-billion dollars for Planned Parenthood.