A grim future for Congressional Republicans

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Joy Lin/Staff

We’re in uncharted territory. The 16-day government shutdown that cost the economy billions of dollars and brought the country to the edge of default is behind us, and now it’s time to take stock of its political impact. At this point, it seems the debacle brought up more questions than it answered.

First and foremost are the ramifications of the shutdown for the 2014 midterm elections. A recently released Gallup poll shows a “record low” level of support for Republicans — just 28 percent — and what Gallup calls “the lowest favorable rating measured for either party” since the firm began polling in 1992. That’s a bleak scenario for the GOP.

But before one prematurely awards the House to the Democrats in 2014, it’s important to put this situation in context. Despite the low approval ratings, historical precedent shows Republicans have a strong likelihood of keeping the House of Representatives. Since 1934, the president’s party has won seats during the midterm elections only twice.

But with that said, both of those occurrences were fairly recent: first in 1998 and again in 2002. While neither of these victories would have been sufficient to net the 17 seats the Democrats need for control of the House, in an era of escalated party polarization and volatile election swings, all bets are off.

A second question the shutdown brought up is John Boehner’s future as Speaker of the House. Although hard-core Tea Party members constitute less than one-fourth of the overall House and by themselves don’t have the power to oust Boehner, they wield disproportionate influence over the future of the speakership for the same reason they are able to significantly influence legislation: Without their support, Republicans don’t have a majority.

So if Republicans maintain control of the House after the midterm elections and Tea Partiers stand united, their support will be critical to any prospective speaker’s ability to receive 218 votes. If they are indeed able to influence the election of a more conservative speaker, then the Republican Party could pay for it down the line. Unlike Boehner, a Tea Party speaker may not be willing to break the “Hastert Rule.”

Named after former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, the Hastert Rule refers to when a speaker refuses to bring a bill to the floor that a majority of his or her caucus opposes. But even Hastert broke his own rule a dozen times.

There is a very real possibility that a more conservative speaker would be even more reluctant than Boehner is to compromise with Democrats and therefore would be less willing to break the rule — even if it would damage the Republican brand name not to do so. This in turn could make bipartisan governance — or any governance at all, for that matter — even more difficult.

However, a small ray of hope for bipartisanship exists: If Democrats are able to whittle down the Republican House majority to single digits in the 2014 elections, a few mainstream, business-oriented Republicans could join Democrats in electing a more moderate speaker and pass more moderate legislation.

For now, the broader dynamic is such that the individual incentives of Tea Partiers are not aligned with the broader welfare of the Republican Party. Most come from deeply red districts, where they are more concerned about losing to a primary challenger from the right than a general election candidate from the left. This means positions that may be unpopular for the party brand and the country as a whole — such as partially shutting down the government over the Affordable Care Act — are what help get them re-elected and what we are likely to see more of.

If Tea Partiers in the House remain displeased with their Republican leaders and are unable to do anything substantive about it, it is possible — albeit unlikely — that the Tea Party itself will emerge as a third party.

So what does this all mean? Although the Republicans have once again failed in their quest to defund the ACA, the unprecedented battle over the future of the country is far from over. Unsurprisingly, Congress took the kick-the-can-down-the-road approach, meaning we’re in for the same battle in early in 2014, when the stakes will arguably be even higher because of election-year scrutiny.

No vulnerable Republican wants to be painted as a moderate by taking a vote to increase the debt ceiling, especially considering the strong possibility of a conservative primary challenger. All this points to the probability of piecemeal governance and temporary solutions for the foreseeable future.

As of now, it is unclear what long-term effects the shutdown will have on politics and the 2014 and 2016 elections. But strap in, because this battle is only part of the larger war, which has no end in sight.

Alec Robert Kassin is a junior at UC Berkeley.