THE BLOG
09/25/2013 10:35 am ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013

Government Shutdown Coverage Discounts Unprecedented Extremism

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The day-in day-out coverage of the possible government shutdown next week has been focused almost entirely on the politics, polls and procedural minutiae, creating the distinct possibility that readers aren't grasping just how extreme a position the House Republicans are taking here in the first place.

But that context is essential to the story. So I set out on a search for a concise, accurate, fair, nonpartisan nut graph that mainstream reporters could plausibly use to get that point across.

To do so, I reached out to several congressional experts and historians, making a special effort to find moderates unlikely to let partisan considerations cloud their judgment one way or the other.

Their conclusions, in brief:

The GOP threat to shut down the government is a form of hostage-taking, which in and of itself isn't actually so unusual.

Calling it hostage-taking "sounds a little dramatic, but I think it's accurate," said Louis Fisher, who specialized in the separation of powers over more than three decades at the Congressional Research Service and the Library of Congress.

Frances E. Lee, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said "it's fair" to describe what Republicans are doing as hostage-taking. "But the legislative process involves a lot of hostage-taking," she said. "You see it on a smaller scale with presidential nominations -- sometimes even employed against the president by members of his own party."

In this case, however, what's being held hostage is not an appointment or a specific appropriation, but the entire government.

"It's a form of suicide. You can't function that way," said Fisher. "If government doesn't function, all sorts of radical things happen. You've got to have a government capable of carrying out basic duties."

"It's like taking the government employees hostage and saying: 'We won't let them come to work unless we're given what we want," said Charles Tiefer, law professor at the University of Baltimore and former deputy general counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. "It's taking those couple of million of government employees hostage."

Calling what Congress is doing hostage-taking isn't really fair -- to hostage-takers, said Andrew Rudalevige, a government professor at Bowdoin College. That's because a criminal's job is to take things and get away, and hostages can be a means to that end, he explained. By contrast, Congress' main job "is making sure the government operates and is stable." Therefore, Rudalevige concluded: "Hostage-takers are doing their job, however perverse that is, while the Congress is not."

Threatening a shutdown during budget negotiations, while rare, is not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is doing so while not even pretending to hold negotiations.

The federal government has experienced brief shutdowns over the years, generally when the back-and-forth between Congress and the White House took longer than expected. The 1995 and 1996 shutdowns were the first time Congress used them as a gambit to force the president's hand when negotiators were very far apart. (They failed.)

"It seems that during most of these previous episodes, an agreement was in theory within reach, because the players were at the table," said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University. "The previous shutdowns tended to occur amidst negotiations. That doesn't seem to be the case this time."

Another dramatic break from the past: Using such a threat to demand the de facto repeal of the duly-passed Obamacare legislation.

"It's unheard of to shut the government down because you want to repeal a law," said Tiefer.

"That seems quite beyond the pale," said Binder.

Fisher said he was shocked when he saw what he now recognizes as a foreshadowing of today's crisis, when Republican senators refused for two years to confirm Richard Cordray -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless President Obama agreed to change the bureau's structure.

"That is really amazing, to say you're not going to confirm unless the underlying statute is rewritten," Fisher said. "That was breathtaking to me."

The GOP's position raises fundamental questions about whether the modern Republican Party is willing to govern, and whether it actually wants the government to function.

"The Republican Party is caught between politics and its responsibility, as a majority party of the House of Representatives, for governance," said Lee. "Governance always requires disappointing your base."

It's easier when you're in the minority, she said. "The party out of power can take advantage of its lack of responsibility for governing."

Today's GOP "wants to behave like a party that has no power at all, but unfortunately for it, it does," she said. "The politics of defunding Obamacare are great with its base, but it has an institutional role which it cannot evade."

Rudalevige said bargaining and negotiating are always part of the process. "But now you actually have people who affirmatively don't want the government to operate," he said.

"This is a real civics course," said Tiefer. But its lesson is a lot more cynical that what you learn in school: "The prospect of harm to the nation doesn't force members of Congress to do what they should," he said.

About that nut graph;

So what would be a good nut graph? Certainly not the sort of paragraph most news outlets are using. A recent Associated Press story's nut graph, for instance, split the difference, trivialized the issues, and focused on process and politics:

Republicans say it is part of their effort to dismantle Democrats' health care overhaul, while Democrats defending the law recall that similar standoffs gave them political gains.

So what about something like this?

Even compared to the famous government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, the current GOP bargaining position is unprecedented in its political extremism. The absence of ongoing negotiations and the demand for a de facto repeal of duly passed legislation has raised serious questions about the party's willingness to disappoint its increasingly radical base by shouldering its responsibility to keep government running.

Got a better one? Post it as a comment, or email me at froomkin@gmail.com. I'll update this post if any of them really knock me out.

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Dan Froomkin is launching a new accountability journalism project at FearlessMedia.org. He has worked as senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post, White House Watch columnist for the Washington Post; and editor of the Washington Post website. Dan can be reached at froomkin@gmail.com.