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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.