Shutting the Federal Government Down Over Planned Parenthood is an Excellent Idea That I Fully Endorse

God, I hope they do it.

As you may be aware, a not-overwhelming but still-alarming number of House and Senate Republicans have, of late, decided to take their vitriol for Planned Parenthood to the next level. No longer content to harp on the organization (a nonprofit that is, by the way, the largest provider of reproductive health care services in the U.S.) by way of strategically edited viral videos and hilarious memes they received in their AOL email inboxes, a growing contingent of lawmakers have decided to cut Planned Parenthood off AT THE SOURCE – its federal funding. Of course, federal law also expressly provides that none of said funds may be used for abortion-related activities, but, hey, details! Here, a July 29 letter from 18 members to House Republican leadership (all emphasis mine):

[W]e must act to fully defund Planned Parenthood. Please know that we cannot and will not support any funding resolution — an appropriations bill, an omnibus package, a continuing resolution, or otherwise — that contains any funding for Planned Parenthood, including mandatory funding streams.

You’re not going to believe this, but all 18 signatories to that letter are men.

More recently, Texas senator and sentient oversized nose Ted Cruz fired his own shot across the bow, declaring that if the federal government shuts down over Planned Parenthood funding this winter (note this statement’s disingenuous obfuscation of the actual actor here, Congress, as if the federal government is just itching to close its doors for funsies), it will not be his fault. Yikes. This is almost exactly the plot of the episode of Friends where Chandler and Ross decide to close their bank accounts in order to quit their gym memberships, but with many fewer oversized short-sleeved button-down shirts and casual homophobic jokes.

This week, a number of relieved news outlets happily proclaimed that the House managed to avoid a threatened government shutdown by passing a bill that will continue to fund the federal government through December 11. While true, and laudable, I GUESS, unfortunately all this will do in practice is marginally delay a shutdown to the point where it occurs just in time to ruin federal employees’ Christmas season. Because this time, the subject of the threatened shutdown — Planned Parenthood — isn’t going anywhere. The salacious allegations that this, again, healthcare nonprofit sells baby parts for blood-soaked dollars are both just absurd enough to earn sensational headlines and just believable enough to that particular segment of the population that desperately wants them to be true in order to stick around, and they will continue to provide plentiful opportunities for Republican lawmakers to breathlessly and repeatedly portray the organization as the morally bankrupt beneficiary of a bloated federal government turned corrupt and cruel.

How does this unfold? Momentum and outrage continue to accelerate over the next few months. Hearings like those held in late September, in which Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards actually got dragged before a furious Republican-led House committee and was forced to answer questions about bizarro world things like whether she supports the sale of fetal tissue for profit, are going to become an increasingly large and loud horn for Republican lawmakers to blow, particularly those who become more and more desperate to separate themselves from the very crowded field of presidential hopefuls. Democrats, cognizant of the fact that the American public blamed the GOP for the last government shutdown and armed with current polling numbers that say, in essence, “wait seriously, no, I don’t want this, nobody wants this, not over this, are you kidding, [opens beer],” will see absolutely no reason to give in.  And suddenly, boom, we’re shutting down D.C. right around the time Wizards point guard John Wall breaks his wrist again (or DOES HE?!).

The odds of shuttered federal doors in December only increased with the sudden and shocking resignation of beleaguered House Speaker John Boehner, who apparently looked around at the Cruz-led contingent clamoring for Planned Parenthood’s evisceration and decided, nah, I’m getting the hell out of here. While it is true that Speaker Boehner’s announcement probably helped to bring about the short-term compromise you heard about last week, he is a reasonably smart person and good political who can see further ahead than December, and he would not abdicate his post altogether unless he really believes that a shutdown, for which he would almost certainly shoulder the blame, is a very real possibility. With absolutely no indication that the far right contingent of his party will be willing to compromise this time, he very understandably decided that he wants no part of having his name dragged through the banks of the Potomac this winter.

Look, pretty much everyone agrees that government shutdowns are bad, and that they generally make everyone involved look like childish idiots, and that a federal government that is closed and doesn’t do anything is not nearly as good as a federal government that does stuff. But given that those considerations haven’t stopped anyone before, here’s a new idea: embrace it. Turn out the proverbial lights, draw the proverbial shutters, break out your largest novelty padlock, and let’s do a shutdown right this time.

Let’s really do it! Let’s close the entire federal government down over the three one-thousandths of one percent of federal funding (that’s $105 million divided by $3.5 trillion) that goes to a healthcare nonprofit that, by law, is permitted to use exactly none of that three one-thousandths of one percent of federal funding for abortions. Let’s take the time to really consider just how blindingly moronic it is for far-right lawmakers to be so committed to taking an ideological stand on this particular issue that they’re willing to harm their country’s economy to the tune of $24 billion (S&P’s estimate for the October 2013 shutdown) and shave at least a percentage point off quarterly GDP growth (because, they’re all about jobs, remember).

And, while the inanity of any government shutdown is not about Planned Parenthood, this one is also, to be fair, a lot about Planned Parenthood. So, let’s get into the weeds this time. Let’s get good, fair, unbiased information about the organization out there, not via email forwards written in red Comic Sans font but instead through actual hearings that become part of the Congressional record. Let’s talk frankly and publicly about the STD testing, HIV prevention, contraception, and, for God’s sake, cancer screening services that collectively comprise 97% of Planned Parenthood’s budget. Let’s consider the low-income women who rely on Planned Parenthood for affordable birth control and prenatal care, and how they’ll manage without it. And let’s juxtapose all of that with occasional reminders of the many bad things that happen during a government shutdown that happen to not affect Ted Cruz, like small businesses losing out on their favorable-rate loans from the SBA and having to resort to high-interest-rate merchant cash advances in order to do business, or Native American tribes cutting off emergency medical assistance to low-income tribe members, or D.C. not paying the doctors and hospitals who provide medical services to the 200,000+ residents who qualify for Medicaid. Let’s do it.

The impetus behind this threatened shutdown is a little different than previous episodes of political brinkmanship, and it may therefore provide a unique opportunity for real public discourse about the consequences of these choices. The last several government shutdowns related to relatively complicated and esoteric policy issues; to be honest, I still don’t really understand the debt ceiling or why it’s important (only that the other side is wrong about it). In the fall of 1995, the federal government shut down for a week after President Clinton vetoed a Republican-authored continuing resolution, and later that year, the government closed its doors for an additional three weeks until the President and Congress managed to agree on a longer-term compromise budget. Reasonable people can disagree about balancing trillion-dollar federal budgets. I get that.

And more recently, in 2013, a federal shutdown resulted after House Republicans refused to fund certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Again, while the wisdom and/or propriety of funding Obamacare is, whatever your political inclinations, relatively simple to grasp from a conceptual standpoint, the ACA was also admittedly very expensive and represented a previously nonexistent outlay of federal funds. So you can at least sort of get that, too. By contrast, Republicans this time around are threatening a shutdown over one particular healthcare organization that’s been receiving federal funding for the past, oh, five decades. The federal government has been giving money to Planned Parenthood through five different Republican administrations, a period that, in a wonderfully soundbite-rready coincidence, has spanned Senator Cruz’s entire life. The only reason to suddenly raise hell about this now is to transparently pander to the far-right base, the single-issue Santorumization of politics in American gone absolutely insane.

The smoldering dumpster fire that is American politics is, eventually, going to get better. (Note, I have absolutely zero proof of this, but that just feels like what you’re supposed to say at this juncture.) But it may also be the case that we have to see just how absurd things are going to get, and just how many remarkably shortsighted steps that lawmakers are willing to take, before we decide to move on from this futile, meaningless political grandstanding. And if that point is now, I say let’s do it big, and do it right, and hope that this time we learn our lesson. (Probably won’t, but still.)


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