Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

When Congress refuses to perform its most basic constitutional duty ...

As of tomorrow, our Republican-led Congress will have one week left in which to carry out its most basic constitutional function, which is to fund the federal government before the new fiscal year expires at midnight on Sept. 30.

And yes, failure does appear to be an option. Among a number of Republicans, it is not merely an option, it is an outcome to be fervently demanded and pursued. Failure would be success, so to speak. And while Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claim to have a plan that will avoid a shutdown, nobody seems to know what that plan might be and there's considerable doubt that Boehner in particular has the votes needed to carry such a plan. Even his survival as speaker would seem to be in considerable peril.

This time, the issue at stake in the threatened shutdown is funding for Planned Parenthood. If Democrats and President Obama don't agree to bar the women's health organization from receiving Medicaid funding for providing standard health-care services such as breast-cancer screening, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and prescription contraceptives, conservatives threaten to shut off the money supply for much of government.

It's become a familiar drill. In the past such shutdowns have been demanded as a means to defund the EPA and Planned Parenthood (April 2011), force approval of the Keystone pipeline (December 2011), bar budget earmarks (December 2010) and defund ObamaCare (September 2013). In fact, conservatives have pushed the system to and over the brink so many times over the past few years, over a number of different issues, that you begin to realize that the issues themselves don't really matter. What matters to them is the emotional catharsis, the jolt of righteous excitement at having done something dramatic to advance their crusade.

It's also striking how little support they have for their cause outside the conservative echo chamber, which for many of them is all that matters. According to the most recent CNN poll, Americans believe it is more important to keep the government open than to defund Planned Parenthood by a more than 3-1 ratio. Even a plurality of self-described Republicans -- 48 percent -- believe that keeping the government open is more important, compared to 44 percent of Republicans who say that defunding Planned Parenthood ought to be the priority.

I know I know: Advocates of a shutdown, enthralled as they are with their own sense of righteousness, claim not to care about such worldly concerns as they carry out God's work. Those who do admit caring will claim that the Republican Party actually benefits from such shutdowns because they demonstrate to voters that they are serious about implementing the changes that they claim to champion.

The evidence strongly suggests that they know better. Look again at the list of shutdowns and near-shutdowns in the past five years. It's not an accident that none has come anywhere near a federal election. In the leadup to the 2012 and 2014 elections, for example, even the most rambunctious Republicans quietly allowed the government to be funded without much controversy. It is only in the off years, or in the wake of elections, that they turn into Samsons willing to bring the whole temple down around their ears to get their way.

2015 is such an off year. Next year is most certainly not. But with a major schism already developing within the party over its presidential nominee, and with Boehner's gavel perhaps slipping from his grasp, I wonder whether the GOP has once again excited passions that it lacks the gravity to contain.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.