The controversies of Washington, DC: government shutdown and no more Redskins

There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day.

Arriving in Washington, DC to start a fellowship at the Library of Congress, I have found myself a victim of the US government shutdown – locked out of the library and forced to join the ranks of aspiring screenwriters in Starbucks. With most of the furloughed government workers based in the nation’s capital, the effects of the shutdown are more apparent in DC than any other city. National monuments and public parks are shut and joggers who venture in risk being fined by overzealous rangers.

Yet the place is hardly reeling. The bookshops, bars and coffee shops are brimming and native Washingtonians note with pleasure that the traffic is much improved. One innovative federal worker has used the enforced holiday to compile an exhaustive database of happy-hour drinks prices inside the Beltway. Meanwhile, the conservative shock jock Glenn Beck and a team of Tea Party supporters kindly volunteered to clean the National Mall over the weekend, descending en masse with rakes and plastic bags.

The devil makes works for idle hands. The last shutdown, in 1996, was also the occasion of Bill Clinton’s encounter with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone reminded me, though, one forgotten outcome of that saga was that Clinton’s approval rating went up 20 points – albeit only after Republicans began impeachment proceedings.

It is that echo – of an American public fed up with partisan politics going one step too far – that resounds through the current imbroglio. Polling figures make it emphatically clear that the Republican Party is bearing the brunt of the blame.

While the Republican leadership in the Senate (a minority) seems willing to countenance a deal, those in the House (who boast a majority) have been playing hardball. It was the latter’s insistence that they would approve a spending bill only if severe dents were made in Barack Obama’s health-care reforms that first led to the impasse. For the most conservative representatives – referred to by some as the “Hell No” caucus – brinkmanship remains the order of the day.

Obama has responded by abandoning direct negotiations with the congressional Republicans, and now all hopes are pinned on the White House striking a deal with the more moderate Republican leadership in the Senate. The chances of a “grand fiscal bargain” between the parties are remote; this debate is not over and is likely to be revisited in six months’ time. What is most likely in the short term is a sticking-plaster solution, along the lines of the deal that ended the previous crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011.

Essentially, this would involve Senate Republicans agreeing the terms of a new bill with the White House – as seems likely – and forcing it through the House with the acquiescence of a sufficient number of Republican votes to make an overall majority. Those Republicans who do support a deal can expect a severe backlash from the right of the party.

Indeed, the gap emerging between Republicans in the House and the Senate is in many ways a sign of the deeper chasm that has been opening up in the heart of the GOP and threatens to swallow it. In recent years, a redrawing of electoral boundaries in Republican-held districts (gerrymandering, in effect) has created a new dynamic in the party, whereby local Republicans are often well protected from a Democrat challenge but face a hard battle in the primaries, where activists have the initiative and the Tea Party is the most effective mobilising force.

The price of local dominance has become national credibility. The type of uncompromising message that works in a Republican primary does not translate well to the circumstances of general elections, which are usually won on the centre ground. There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day. If it has been so irresponsible in control of the House, it is asked, how can it be entrusted with control of the Senate, too?

Ruffled feathers

Another ongoing squabble in DC, undoubtedly of more interest to its inhabitants, concerns the town’s beloved American football team – the Washington Redskins. The Redskins’ owner, Daniel Snyder, is coming under pressure to change the name of the franchise on the grounds that it is offensive to Native Americans, for whom Redskin – as opposed to other appellations such as “Chief” or “Brave” – has pejorative connotations. Snyder remains defiant that he will not rename the team and points out that most Native Americans polled say they are not offended. But the issue will not go away. Obama has come out in favour of a change. More important, in a “half-time essay” on Sunday Night Football, the influential NBC anchor Bob Costas made a strong case that the name was indeed offensive and it was time find a new one.

In a bifurcated city – with affluent suburbs but some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the US – what does unite Washingtonians is their football team. The downtown bars were packed on Sunday night as the Redskins attempted to kick-start their stuttering season against their great historical rivals, the Cowboys, in Dallas. Hopes were pinned on the star quarterback Robert Griffin III (affectionately known as RG3), who continues his comeback from reconstructive surgery on his knee. Despite glimpses of his former brilliance, RG3’s game collapsed in the final quarter and Dallas held on for a victory.

However, the rising star on the DC sports scene is a real “football” player: DC United’s goalkeeper, Bilal “Bill” Hamid. Despite being in a team cut adrift at the bottom of the table, he was superb against Philadelphia Union in a rainy Saturday-night game at the RFK Stadium. He will be in the English Premier League before too long.

The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.