Operation Shutdown | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Operation Shutdown

What the @#$! was that supposed to be about?

It was just 10 months ago that Western Pennsylvania's own congressman Keith Rothfus took his first high-profile stand: voting against aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Now look at him: voting against funding government services for the rest of us.

Congresspeople grow up so fast. Or actually, not at all.

On Oct. 17, Rothfus was one of 144 House Republicans who voted against a bill to end a 16-day government shutdown and avoid a default on U.S. debt. Even many Republicans who'd previously supported the shutdown — like Western Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy — had thrown in the towel by this point. But Rothfus was joined by fellow Pennsylvania Tea Party fave Pat Toomey, one of only 18 senators who voted against the measure.

And what do we have to show for it?

For many Republicans, the shutdown/debt default threat was supposed to help exact concessions on Barack Obama's health-care reforms. Rothfus insisted that "Western Pennsylvanians are looking for relief from President Obama's health-care law." That didn't pan out so well. By Oct. 15, Rothfus was tweeting that "Western Pennsylvanians expect & deserve the President, Senate, & House to work together." Sure enough, days later the President, Senate, and House agreed to end the shutdown. Yet Rothfus voted against the very consensus he claimed to want.

For Toomey, meanwhile, it was all about deficits, not health care. "I cannot support piling hundreds of billions of dollars of debt ... without even a sliver of reform to start putting our fiscal house in order," he said in a statement.

But one thing the shutdown didn't advance was the cause of fiscal prudence. Furloughed federal workers are getting back pay for the time they were locked out. Which means Republicans just gave government employees an extra two weeks of paid vacation ... all in the name of fiscal restraint.

But maybe the shutdown wasn't a means to an end, so much as an end in itself — an effort to erode whatever faith we might still have in the public institutions Republicans often disdain.As humorist P.J. O'Rourke once said, Republicans campaign for office by telling you government is terrible ... and once elected, they set about proving it.

Anyway, it's not as if you could call Rothfus and Toomey losers here. For one thing, delaying some other federal worker's paycheck can be a great way to cash in yourself.

During the shutdown, Rothfus announced raising more than $227,000 in the second quarter of 2013 — more than five times as much as potential Democratic challenger Erin McClelland. He may reap a bigger windfall after his shut-down vote: Already Rothfus' coffers include $5,000 from Koch Industries, whose owners are among the Tea Party's leading sugar daddies. (Political committees controlled by Toomey, meanwhile, have garnered $40,000 from Koch sources since 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Perhaps the most brain-melting thing about this fiasco, though, is how the people who provoked the crisis act as if they had nothing to do with it.

As government clanked back into operation, Rothfus primly observed, "The lesson that should be learned is that elected officials ... must come together and negotiate before the eleventh hour." That conveniently fails to mention the reason the chime was striking 11: because the GOP had pushed the clock hands forward.

Toomey's office, meanwhile, used social media to claim a debt default wouldn't be that bad. We could "prioritize" the government's debts, making sure bondholders got paid first while everyone else waited in line. When the credit-rating agency Moody's predicted that prioritization would happen, Toomey's official Twitter account enthused, "Moody's agrees with me." Famous last words, at least for anyone who once owned stock in Enron or Lehman Brothers.

Mostly, though, Rothfus and Toomey have simply laid low. Unlike charismatic figures such as Ted Cruz or Michele Bachman, they radiate a disarming dweebishness. And it works: Even when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a blistering Oct. 18 editorial blasting the "political vandals of the right," it didn't call out Toomey or Rothfus by name.

But the lesson of this shutdown is: Don't be fooled. When you elect politicians who have contempt for government, you end up with government that has contempt for you.

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