The big one (updated)

by John Q on October 30, 2023

(14 Nov update) I got this badly wrong. Johnson followed the same path that doomed McCarthy, passing a short-term fix with Democratic votes. It’s hard to see why the Republicans went through all these contortions to end up where they started.

Government shutdowns, and threats of shutdown, have become routine in the US, with the result that no one much worries about them any more. Typically some kind of compromise is reached just as the deadline approaches, and government returns to quasi-normality.. Occasionally, bluffs are called and a ‘shutdown’ actually happens. Civil servants are sent home, public facilities are closed and so on. But the armed forces operate as normal, Social Security checks go out, and IOUs take the place of actual spending for various essential purposes. After a few weeks at the most, that produces enough pressure to deliver some kind of resolution. As far as I can see, that’s what most political commentators think will happen in November, when the next deadline is reached.

I foresee something more drastic and dangerous. It’s hard to imagine the Republicans in the House of Representatives agreeing on any set of demands for a spending bill, short of requiring Biden and Harris to resign and install Johnson as President* . But if they do come up with a program, it will be so extreme as to be totally unacceptable to Biden and the Democrats. And, the long history of blackmail efforts like this seems to have stiffened spines on the Democratic side.
Earthquakes: Facts, Definition, Types, Causes and Effects of Earthquake …

So, there will probably be a shutdown. But how will it end? Leaving aside the fact that Johnson is a far-right extremist dedicated to the overthrow of US democracy, cutting any kind of deal with Biden would be signing his own resignation (but see below). On the other side, capitulation would doom Biden’s presidency.

That means the shutdown has to continue past the symbolic stage of closing national parks and so on, to the point where it is doing serious damage to the US economy and society, with debt downgrades, personal and corporate bankruptcies and so on. That will still not be enough to shift the Republican extreme right, so no deal will be achieved with Republicans alone. What are the remaining possibilities? Here are a few I’ve thought about, roughly in order of probability

  • Johnson cuts a deal with the Democrats, passing a continuing resolution in return for the promise of some abstentions, or even active support, when the Freedom Caucus try to vote him out. This seems the most likely option to me, but it will be very painful on both sides
  • Biden capitulates. I still see this as unlikely, but the pressure to do so will be immense.

  • A handful of Republicans remember that they are supposed to care about the country they govern, and cross the floor, knowing they will lose their seats and face the obloquy of most of their (former) friends and supporters.

  • Biden invokes emergency powers to reopen the government and defies the Supreme Court to stop him. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know what these powers might be, but the issue is essentially political. Unless he is impeached or otherwise prevented from acting, emergency powers are what the President says they are, a point made by Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the Civil War (a relevant precedent in the current state of the US).

I haven’t seen anyone else predicting such a crisis, so maybe I’m over-estimating the difficulty of reaching a resolution. IIRC, I was among the first to predict a crisis like this when the Republicans retook the House in 2010**, but I couldn’t see a resolution then either, and one was reached in the end.

  • Joking, but not really – I can imagine at least some of them demanding this, with the proviso that Johnson would then resign in favour of Trump.

** There was a debt limit crisis in 2011 and a 16-day shutdown in 2013.

Crossposted from my substack



J-D 10.30.23 at 1:06 am

Your list of possibilities suggests one to me which might be considered a variation on one of those you’ve listed: a handful of Republican Representatives resign from Congress, enough to give the Democrats a majority in the House, even if only temporarily. If ten Republican Representatives resign their seats, then the Democrats will have a majority until at least one of those seats is filled. Also, if five Republican Representatives resign their seats and all five of those seats are filled by Democrats, control of the chamber will switch, not so temporarily.

I have no sense of the likelihood of this outcome, or of any of those of you’ve listed, or of one not listed.


Jerry Brown 10.30.23 at 1:22 am

#1 on your list should be- eventually, after much pain and confusion, Johnson allows a bill to come to the floor that requires Democrat support to pass. Recent history does not show Democrats in the house to be willing to support Republican house speakers without an explicit deal , and that such a deal is anathema to Republicans for whatever reason.

And whatever the House passes has to also be passed by the Senate before it goes to Biden, so I think that moves a Biden capitulation much further down the list.


Alan White 10.30.23 at 5:58 am

John–your analysis in my opinion is pretty much dead on. But Trump will never agree to be Speaker–he knows that he doesn’t want it because he knows he doesn’t want to navigate narrow paths to power that potentially could embarrass him. He knows to some extent that he is a pretentious idiot in the face of reason backed by power–such as he faces now in courts, though recently he has shown such meandering in his speeches that he makes Biden seem eloquent by comparison. Dems need to put money into messaging in every way to get out the fact that the ReThugs are destroying government, not them.


Salem 10.30.23 at 12:51 pm

As the gap between the public and private votes for Speaker demonstrates, there is a lot of – for want of a better word – kayfabe in the Congressional Republicans. This makes them much harder to make a deal with, but may also cause an unexpected resolution. For example, maybe Congressional Republicans pass a bill that substantively gives the Democrats everything they want, and declare it as a Republican victory. It’s very hard to predict.


JBL 10.30.23 at 2:38 pm

“Earthquakes: Facts, Definition, Types, Causes and Effects of Earthquake …” hmm


Michael Cain 10.30.23 at 4:26 pm

You left out Johnson’s almost-explicitly stated plan: pass the House appropriations bills with big cuts by regular order, then ask for the CR because the Senate Democrats haven’t finished. All 12 of the Senate appropriations bills have come out of committee, but none have reached the floor. There’s almost certainly not time left before Nov 17 for Schumer to get them all passed. Johnson brought the energy and water bill to the floor last Thursday. The House spent the afternoon voting down almost all of the offered amendments — most of which would have made further cuts — and passed the bill. That’s 5 of 12 finished in the House. There’s a fair chance Johnson can finish the other seven, then blame the need for the CR on the Senate Democrats.

I’m not saying that he can pull it off, but it already looks like Johnson is better at this than McCarthy was.


MFB 10.31.23 at 10:26 am

For Democrats resident in the United States, I suppose this is a problem with implications for party’s performance in the forthcoming Presidential elections. However, it’s more or less impossible to predict what will happen.

For the rest of us, should we care? Does the U.S. Congress do anything significantly beneficial for non-Americans? I think not. Does it really do tremendously much beneficial for most Americans? And if it paralyses what the Presidency can do, is that really such a problem either? I am in doubt about these.


Seekonk 10.31.23 at 4:33 pm

A major factor in keeping the US government open is that it acts as gendarme and ATM for some very powerful actors who presumably oppose any disruption. But Matt Gaetz says that he has sworn off PAC money. Is it possible that the Repub nihilists can make a better living as YouTube-celebrity wreckers than they can from Beltway payola?


Frank Wilhoit 10.31.23 at 6:50 pm

We’ll get bits of #3 and #4. Johnson has nowhere near the intellectual flexibility to envision #1; it would be like asking Toonces to parallel-park.

As to your final and somewhat shocking graf, paralysis is strongly asymmetrical. The water can be turned off, the fire cannot. There is no way to “paralyze” bad outcomes, only mitigations thereto.


Suzanne 10.31.23 at 6:53 pm

Recent history suggests that a government shutdown will benefit the White House and the Democrats politically, which is not to say that Biden wants one. There are some needed spending bills that have been bottled up. Johnson is one of the House crazies but early indications suggest that his elevation to the speakership has concentrated his mind somewhat and he wants to appear to be open to a deal. How genuine the sentiment is we will find out.


Kenneth Schulz 10.31.23 at 8:07 pm

My last employment was as a contract employee at a Federal R&D center. I went through one shutdown. Federal workers were made whole after the CR was passed to end the shutdown. Contract employees (about equal in number to Feds at this location) lost ten or more days’ income. Most of the contracting companies at our location were small, but there are large defense-industry companies supplying contract employees as well. You would think they would pressure the Republicans to keep the money flowing, or to restore it as soon as possible, especially if it would only require compromise on culture-war issues. Of course, if their lobbying is to be credible, they would have to be willing to switch contributions from Republicans to Democrats. Pits management’s personal interests (Republican tax cuts for fat cats) against corporate interest (Democrats’ continued spending)


JW Mason 11.01.23 at 2:58 pm

I don’t think this analysis is wrong, exactly. but I think, like a lot of commentary, it exaggerates the difference between today’s Republicans and those of a generation ago. The basic dynamics here have been at work for a long time. Whatever it is that has kept the US state function so far, it is not an absence of fascists, wreckers and nihilists in high places.

So I think we’ll get the same outcome as always — 1 with a bit of 2. The big question is how much Biden feels obliged to offer.

From a game-theory perspective, one could argue that it’s in Republicans’ interest to exaggerate how crazy the new crew is, and play up the possibility of a full-blown crisis. Which perhaps is a reason for skepticism.


someone who remembers the last shutdown 11.01.23 at 4:44 pm

Last time around there was a small group that argued the shutdown was good and should be extended forever. that group now runs the republican party. i think you underestimate the possibility of a much larger and more permanently destructive shutdown. you should be prepared for armed forces guys to be desperately looking for jobs.


AnthonyB 11.01.23 at 11:21 pm

If the shoe were on the other foot, the Republicans would think along these lines:

“A state of exception (German: Ausnahmezustand) is a concept introduced in the 1920s by the German philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt, similar to a state of emergency (martial law) but based in the sovereign’s ability to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good.” (Wikipedia)

The American president is Head of State, with some of the trappings of a sovereign (e.g. the pardon power).


John Q 11.02.23 at 5:58 am

JW Mason,

It’s both a continuation of the past and a new willingness to destroy the system rather than share power. I used the metaphor of phase transition to describe this a while back (notably, before the insurrection).


politicalfootball 11.02.23 at 4:31 pm

We’ll get bits of #3 and #4.

That seems right to me. Johnson and Biden have almost insuperable incentives to not meaningfully compromise. But the mechanics of this are unclear to me. Doesn’t Johnson have to consent for something to be brought to the floor?


JW Masn 11.03.23 at 4:00 pm

That’s a nice post. But I think it sort of starts from the thing that has to be established – that there has in fact been a radical change in the Republican Party. I am still not convinced.

Think about this scenario: A newly-installed Speaker from the far right of the Republican Party attempts to shore up his position by using the threat of a government shutdown to push through a radical agenda that would drastically revise the US social contract, which has no hope of being passed through the normal legislative process or being signed by a Democratic president.

That was, of course, the story of the government shutdown in 1995, nearly 25 years ago. I think it’s easy, when looking at today’s Republicans, to forget the extreme politics and loony ideas of Newt Gingrich and his peers. (And to gorget, when asking how fundamentalist Christians can support the twice-divorced Trump, that the twice-divorced Gingrich was threader of the same faction despite literally serving his first wife with divorce papers while she was in the hospital for cancer.) And obviously, the Republican Party of a generation or two ago was much more overtly racist than today’s.

I think the claim that there has been some kind of phase transition really has to be supported and not just asserted. By what specific criteria are we assessing the relative mix of business-friendly economics, racism, and other elements? If we were to ask the question in an open-ended way, “how should we classify political parties of different eras,” how would we answer it?

There is one important way in which Trump is different from Gingrich, which is that he had no political career before running for the Presidency. That does tell us something important about the internal processes of the Republican Party. Either it’s no longer the case that “the party decides,” or that claim was always exaggerated. But I don’t think anything about the substantive positions the party pursues or its tactics necessarily follows from that difference.


JW Mason 11.03.23 at 4:04 pm

nearly 30 years ago


politicalfootball 11.06.23 at 8:39 pm

JW@17: These are all worthy questions, and I think you can answer by looking at Gingrich himself. In 1995, it’s simply inconceivable that he would have found political or personal advantage in apologetics for insurrectionists. He is more than happy, now, to back autogolpe.

Johnson, meanwhile, is speaker precisely because he continues to oppose the peaceful transfer of power to a Democrat. That’s new, and I think it qualifies, in your terms, as a “phase transition.”

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