There's no question that the federal system is broken. But can it be fixed?
WASHINGTON — Count on the Greatest Generation to storm the shutdown.
A group of World War II veterans from Mississippi, on a long-scheduled excursion to Washington, managed to push past the metal barricades that were blocking access to the World War II Memorial on Tuesday because of the government shutdown and move in to place wreaths, read plaques and take photos.
In the rest of the capital, however, there was no such decisive action on Day 1 of what could be an extended government closure. Most of the energy around town was focused on trying to frame the debate so the other side would get the blame for the loss of government services, the furloughing of 800,000 federal workers and, potentially, the hit to a fragile economy.
The shutdown of the federal government was simply the latest and most dramatic demonstration of an increasingly dysfunctional capital in which filibusters are the norm and the traditional ways of reaching compromises no longer apply.
The question doesn't seem to be whether Washington is broken — with the government out of money and public approval of Congress skidding toward single digits, could anyone persuasively argue that it's not? — but how it got this way and whether it can be either fixed or replaced by some other way of doing business.
BOEHNER: Obama owns this shutdown now
Just what that might be, however, was nowhere in sight Tuesday. There were no signs of how long the shutdown was likely to last, and no sense of precisely how it might end.
The core issue: In the bill to temporarily fund the government, House Republicans have insisted on defunding or delaying Obamacare, a demand the White House and Senate Democrats have flatly rejected. Rock, meet hard place.
In the Rose Garden, President Obama called the crisis the consequence of an ideological crusade against the Affordable Care Act. (He spoke surrounded by Americans who will benefit from the health care marketplaces, which, by happenstance, were opening Tuesday.) He said he would not give in to unreasonable demands by "one faction of one party of one house of Congress in one branch of government."
"Congress generally has to stop governing by crisis," Obama said, repeatedly using the phrase "Republican shutdown."
"It is not worthy of this country," he said.
On Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., joined with seven other ranking House Republicans who had been named as negotiators for a proposed House-Senate conference committee on the budget, although Senate Democrats already had dismissed the idea as hypocritical. They sat in shirtsleeves, apparently ready to get to work, lining one side of a table. Across the table was a row of empty seats.
"All of us are here, sitting at a table, waiting for the Senate Democrats to join us so we can begin to resolve our differences," Cantor told reporters and photographers invited to survey the scene.
What apparently wasn't happening: Actual negotiations between the White House and Congress. Negotiations between the House and Senate. Negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. Or even negotiations between the Tea Party Republicans who had drawn a red line on Obamacare and more moderate Republicans who were ready to vote to fund the government without strings attached.
In a sign the president doesn't think the government will be open for business anytime soon, the White House announced he would visit a Maryland road-construction company Thursday that has been affected by the shutdown to urge Congress to pass a funding bill.
THEN AND NOW
The last shutdown lasted 21 days, from December 1995 to January 1996, in a showdown between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich over economic forecasts and budget plans. In the end, House Republicans caved after bearing the brunt of public blame. The exercise helped invigorate Clinton's presidency and boosted him in his re-election bid later that year.
The difference in rhythm between that shutdown and this one is enormous, says Rich Galen, a Republican consultant and former Gingrich aide. During the last shutdown, the president and the speaker were in daily contact for more than a month, and both reveled in talking policy even when they disagreed. This time, Obama and Boehner didn't talk in the 10 days leading up to the shutdown. On Monday, the president called the House speaker and other congressional leaders — but Boehner said the president's message was simply that he wouldn't negotiate.
The political landscape is different, too. says William Galston, who was a White House adviser to Clinton during the opening days of that confrontation.
"Polarization is substantially worse than it was 20 years ago by any measure, and a generation of congressional leaders who had some experience of working together has been replaced by a generation who doesn't," says Galston, now a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. "The ideological clash between House Republicans and the president is very deep."
In the two decades, an array of factors have eliminated some of the bridges that once helped the process of passing budgets, reaching compromises and resolving differences.
Now congressional districts are much more likely to be dominated by voters from one party or the other, reducing the political imperative to strike a deal with the other side. (The non-partisan Cook Political Report calculates that a third of House Republicans in 1995 represented districts won by Clinton. Now, just 7% of House Republicans represent districts won by Obama.)
The influence and campaign spending of independent groups with ideological agendas have swelled.
Even the choice of where to live has had a subtle impact: Now members of Congress are much more likely to leave their families in their districts than move them to the Washington area.
"When our son was playing Little League in McLean" in the Virginia suburbs, "it was not at all unusual to be leaning over the fence with a Republican U.S. trade representative on one side and a Democratic senator on the other side, talking about the big issues of the day, like shouldn't that shortstop be one step to his left?" Galen said. "You don't see that anymore, because everybody goes home for the weekend. There's no camaraderie. There's no shared experience."
Galston sees another crucial difference between then and now. The impasse over extending the government's financing even temporarily is fueling fears that Congress will stumble in the more serious showdown in two weeks over raising the debt ceiling so the United States can pay its bills. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew estimates the date of default will be Oct. 17.
"We have much less time and room to maneuver this time," Galston says. "We can survive — not unscathed, but survive a government shutdown but that pales into insignificance compared to what would happen if we reach the middle of October without a resolution on the debt." In that situation, he says, there will be "awful options, terrible options and very, very bad options" that could imperil the economy and create a crisis of "constitutional dimensions."
Even now, the fiscal battles in Washington seem to be creating economic unease. Gallup Tuesday reported that confidence in the economy slid in September to its worst monthly average in a year. Americans also were more likely to believe the current budget battle was more an attempt by both sides to gain political advantage than it was an important battle over principles.
That was pretty much the public's views in a Gallup Poll taken on the day of the last government shutdown, in November 1995.
'A BAD THING'
The immediate political risks for everyone involved are considerable.
Two-thirds of Americans say a government shutdown of even a few days would be "a bad thing," according to a CNN/ORC Poll released Monday. Surveys show the public more inclined to blame Republicans than Democrats or the president for a shutdown, but each gets a significant share. While he beats the 10% approval rating for Congress, Obama's approval also has been sagging, to 44% in the CNN poll. Fifty-three percent disapproved of the job he's doing.
During the 2012 campaign, Obama predicted in an interview with USA TODAY and elsewhere that his re-election could "break the fever" of partisanship that had made it difficult to get things done in Washington. He spoke optimistically about passing a comprehensive immigration bill by now. Those hopes now seem distant.
Nearly a year later, the only direction that fever seems to be going is up, and there are no signs that's about to change.
Follow Susan Page on Twitter at @susanpage