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The government shutdown: Is total dysfunction the new normal in D.C.?
Extreme partisan rancor isn't exactly new. And it's probably here to stay.
Get used to it.
Get used to it. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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oday, after a years-long crusade by House Republicans to repeal, replace, defund, or delay ObamaCare, the Affordable Care Act's new health-care exchanges opened for business. And at the same time, because Republicans refused to pass a budget unless Democrats knee-capped ObamaCare (which the left refused to do), Americans woke up to the first government shutdown in 17 years.

That means around 800,000 federal employees will be forced to take furloughs. NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Commerce Department have all but closed their doors. Even the beloved Panda Cam has gone dark.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. The year started out with Washington nearly driving off the so-called fiscal cliff, and in March, more partisan dysfunction led "sequester" to become many Americans' least favorite new bit of legislative jargon.

"Lurching from near-calamity to near-catastrophe has become a way of life in the capital," write The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty and Paul Kane, noting that lawmakers have "stood at the edge of a financial precipice at least four times since the end of 2010."

This government shutdown has the potential to be much worse, depending on how long it lasts. But the real question is whether this will be a one-time debacle, or, like Sisyphus, Congress will continue to spend year after year pushing what was once a routine federal spending bill up a hill only to watch it roll back down again amid a furor of partisan rancor.

The confluence of the end of the fiscal year and the opening of the Affordable Care Act's health insurance exchanges might have created the perfect storm for dysfunction, giving the GOP the chance to tie the fate of the loathed-by-the-right law to the continued operation of the government. Or maybe this rabid partisan war-making over once-routine matters is just the new normal in American politics.

For better or worse, there is some historical precedent for this sort of extreme partisanship. As The New Yorker's Jeff Shesol notes, the "hysterical" and "paranoid style in American politics" is a time-honored tradition. An intense panic from conservatives erupted in the 1930s on the eve of the New Deal, a far more aggressive expansion of the federal government than anything attempted by the Obama administration.

The ObamaCare drama, however, is, "by historical standards of hysteria, really first-rate stuff," Shesol says.

This might bode well for the Affordable Care Act, over the long term, if today's brand of lunacy were more like that of the '30s — that is, in some measure trumped-up and tactical. It's not that New Deal-era Republicans didn't believe what they were saying about the end of liberty; many earnestly did … Therein lies the difference between the Republican Party of the past century and the Republican Party of our own (especially, but not exclusively, its Tea Party faction): the difference between calculation and obsession, between a hysterical style and an honest-to-goodness, diagnosable hysteria. [New Yorker]

The problem, as the National Journal argues, is that many House Republicans represent totally-safe, deep-red districts. Even if their rather aggressive bargaining position polls terribly nationally, back home in super-conservative districts, head-to-head combat with the president over ObamaCare plays well.

"The electoral threat of them angering anybody outside of their base is pretty low," Gary C. Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, tells the National Journal, meaning "incentives for most House Republicans would encourage more — not less — confrontation as the standoffs proceed."

That means that unless the political landscape changes, or, as Bloomberg View's editiorial board puts it, the shutdown is "so cathartic that it makes Washington — God forbid — functional," Americans might experience deja vu all over again the next time the government needs more money to keep operating, and the next, and...

Keith Wagstaff is a staff writer at TheWeek.com covering politics and current events. He has previously written for such publications as TIME, Details, VICE, and the Village Voice.

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