Amid a weeks-long deluge of pontification and punditry in newspapers every day and around the clock on dozens of TV channels, who would have thought that the key to the shutdown dilemma would be a five-minute video of procedural business on the floor of the US House of Representatives? Or that it would be posted not by a major media outlet — nor even a minor one — but by an obscure congressman from Maryland, Democrat Chris Van Hollen?
The clip in question, from October 12, along with a three-minute C-SPAN clip of a late-night House Rules Committee meeting on September 30, are crucial to understanding exactly how the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has subverted our democratic process.
The clips show that at the very last minute — between 10:45 pm September 30 and 1:15 am October 1 — the Republicans rigged the rules of the game to prevent ordinary members of the House from making progress on a budget resolution, without which the government will remain closed.
The original rules let any House member decide that a stalemate had been reached when determining how to amend a proposed bill, and allowed that member to force a vote on the bill without any amendments. In other words, it provides a means for a representative to compel his or her colleagues to vote up or down on the main question at hand, with no changes. This is relevant here because the Senate has passed what is being called a “clean” budget resolution, and the House Republicans are demanding it be amended to defund the Affordable Care Act before coming to a vote. The videos show that Republicans changed the rules to prevent any member from forcing a vote without amendments, and restricted that power to arch-conservative majority leader Eric Cantor, a tea partier from Virginia.
This move didn’t come to light through deep reporting or anonymous tipsters leaking information to the media. Instead, Van Hollen posted a video (of his exchange on the House floor illuminating this new rule) to YouTube. As one observer noted, it already has half again as many views as Van Hollen has constituents living in his district.
Until now, the mainstream media have seemed devoted to presenting the shutdown as a bipartisan mess. On September 30, a headline in the Washington Post blared: “In shutdown blame game, Democrats and Republicans united: It’s the other side’s fault.” On October 15 , the perspective remained unchanged: “Senate leaders’ talks on shutdown, debt limit stall as sides await market’s reaction,” read a Post headline.
Observers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been pointing out that these are misleading: In fact, of course, the government shutdown was a strategy employed by radical right-wingers who have always wanted to shrink government down so small that Grover Norquist could, as he famously said, “drown it in a bathtub.”
Coverage like Stewart’s and Colbert’s (as well as by alternative media around the nation), and now viral viewing of a few moments of Congressional technicalities, has led the American public to reject the mainstream-media view that everyone is to blame. On October 9, the Post ran a story with this headline: “AP-GfK Poll: Republicans get most blame for shutdown but no one’s a hero.” While there’s still a misdirection at the end, it’s clear that despite mainstream waffling, Americans are finding out what’s really going on.
Now it’s clear the Republicans haven’t taken hostages, but have rigged the rules of the game so a distinct and marginalized minority are in control of the entire legislative mechanism of this country. Will the mainstream media follow the truth, and the course set by its audience, or will the dinosaurs fall ever closer to extinction and irrelevance, for lack of courage to be honest?
Another thing they’re missing While the shutdown’s effects on US Antarctic Program operations and science have made some headlines, there’s an important connection that hasn’t: A great deal of government-funded research in the Antarctic and elsewhere studies the Earth’s changing climate. Huge gaps are about to appear in decades-long data collections, making scientific conclusions vulnerable to political assault. “They don’t have all the data,” climate-change-denier politicians will cry, ignoring that they themselves ensured that flaw by preventing spending on research. The aftereffects of this shutdown will echo for decades in scientific circles. Of course, this won’t bug people who think Jesus hung out with dinosaurs. But it should scare hell out of the rest of us.