*** How we got here: The United States finds itself in Week 2 of a government shutdown, with NBC's Andrea Mitchell reporting on "TODAY" that the government is unable to pay immediate death benefits (for funerals and to reunite families) after U.S. military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan. What's more, the U.S. now faces the real prospect of default if the debt limit isn't raised by Oct. 17. And the political party controlling the House of Representatives—the GOP—can't seem to find a way out of the standoff it helped create. "We don't have the votes for a big deal, small deal, or short-term deal," an anonymous Republican aide told the National Review yesterday. So how did we get here? We can point to four structural changes over the last several years that have contributed to this governing crisis, particularly as it relates to the Republican Party.
1) Parties have less control over their members: The national parties and congressional leaders have less control over their rank-and-file than they used to. And there's one basic reason why: Money. Part of it is because of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, which eliminated the practice of the parties being able to collect six- and seven-figure "soft money" donations. So when political parties stopped being the main source for cash, that was step one in the decentralizing of the parties. Another part has been earmark reform, which took away the ability of leaders and committee chairman to dangle goodies to get votes. (Think John Boehner could have more control over his caucus if he could promise a $10 million bridge in that member's district?) And a third part was the recent Citizens United decision, which allowed outside groups (and individuals) to have as much fundraising/ad-spending power as the parties. Think about it: Outside special-interest groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth have much more power over individual members than the Republican National Committee does. And whenever Democrats lose control of the White House, you can see how that party could splinter like the GOP has here, too. Speaking of campaign-finance changes, the Supreme Court today hears oral arguments about another possible one—the $123,200 cap on how much individuals can contribute (in the aggregate) to federal candidates and parties. It's just the latest example of how the changes in finance laws have impacted the power of parties, which in turn has made governing that much more difficult.
More from NBC News:
Obama rebuffs Boehner's pleas for fiscal negotiations
Starbucks CEO 'utterly disappointed,' urges end to government shutdown
Dow, S&P drop to one-month lows amid DC budget stalemate
2) Fewer competitive districts: There are fewer and fewer competitive congressional districts—due in large part to sophisticated gerrymandering and geographical self-sorting (with Democrats living in Democratic areas and Republicans living in Republican areas). During the last government shutdown in 1995-96, more than 33 percent of House Republicans represented congressional districts that Bill Clinton carried in the previous election, according to data from the Cook Political Report. Today, just 7 percent of House Republicans represent districts that Barack Obama won in 2012. This means there are fewer potential crossover votes. After all, what incentive does someone like Tea Party Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) have in working with Obama when Mitt Romney carried his congressional district by a whopping 42 points, 70 percent to 28 percent? In fact, his incentive is to oppose the president.