The ‘Fringe Issue’ That’s About to Shut Down Government

Once again, the government is teetering on the brink of catastrophe over the issue of abortion.

In August 2011, a folksy Midwestern congressman appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. During that appearance, he explained to the program’s hosts that, when it came to the issue of abortion, there was no wiggle room; he would personally do his part to shut down the federal government if the federal government continued to fund Planned Parenthood.

He didn’t get his way. A budget compromise, reached hours before the fiscal year’s deadline, kept the government open. But it wasn’t the first time abortion nearly derailed American democracy. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Now, that congressman—Mike Pence—is vice president. And the government, once again, teeters on the brink of catastrophe over the issue of abortion.

For a fringe issue, abortion sure dictates a lot.

The bumpy debut of the American Health Care Act would better be described as a demolition derby than a rollout. Despite the general consensus that the AHCA is a terrible bill, a lot of Republican feelings are riding on it. The GOP has run for years on the promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, and it’s been a while since they’ve had a real win. Unfortunately for the estimated 23 million who would lose insurance under their new, worse plan, Republicans are willing to sacrifice the well-being of millions on the altar of their egos.

The House plan is wildly unpopular, and the only way Republican senators will get their (henceforth secret) version of the thing passed is if they rely on a process called reconciliation. That way, they need only a 51-vote majority rather than the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority they’d need for other legislation. Without getting too far into the weeds about Senate procedure, the Senate can only use reconciliation for budget-related matters. And that’s where abortion comes in.

The problem is that some of the abortion restrictions contained in the House version of the bill may not qualify as purely budgetary. The AP reported on Friday that Republican senators may try to circumvent this by funnelling the entire bill through a program that already restricts abortion funding, but it’s unclear if the move will work. That means that the secret bill would need 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster. That means failure, again, of a Republican-controlled Washington to accomplish any of Republicans’ major goals.

Abortion-related kerfuffles have been shutting down, derailing, and otherwise complicating the American democratic process for much longer than Mike Pence has been appearing on national political talk shows. Maybe it’s time to stop acting surprised when it happens.

A person would have to have a pretty short memory to have forgotten how, in 2015, the federal government nearly shut down over Republican demands that the budget defund Planned Parenthood. Or how, in 2013, arguments over Obamacare (which provided forms of birth control some pro-lifers consider abortifacients to women without copay) did shut down the government. Or how some health care watchers saw the ACA repeal-related abortion fight coming back in February.

In 1977, a Senate slapfight over abortion meant that $60.2 billion earmarked to fund the departments of Labor and Health, Education and Welfare sat stuck for weeks as the agencies went without operating budgets. The government shut down three times—in September, and again in October, and again in November—over the flap. In 1978, abortion-related debate was partially responsible for shutting the government down again. And in 1979. Has a middle-aged man ever had more abortion-related problems than President Jimmy Carter?

In 1983, pro-choice members of the Senate successfully filibustered a proposed law that would have barred insurance companies from covering abortion procedures, as Senator Orrin Hatch attempted to get buy-in for a constitutional amendment defining life as beginning at conception. The filibuster was successful, in part, because it threatened to delay a vote on raising the federal debt ceiling. The government ended up briefly shutting down, anyway.

In 1993, when President Bill Clinton was on an ill-fated mission to reform American health care, the issue of federal funding of abortion came up again, even though it had been illegal for federal funds to pay for most abortions since 1976.

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In 2002, a bankruptcy bill stalled when New York Senator Chuck Schumer insisted lawmakers add a provision to prevent anti-abortion activists from using bankruptcy to avoid paying fines. “Of all things,” wrote the New York Post’s Deborah Orin at the time.

Of all things! To people who have strong opinions about abortion, it’s the only thing.

Anti-abortion advocates like Vice President Pence believe that the medical procedure literally ends a human life, as a murder would. Pro-choice advocates believe that restricting abortion infringes on women’s human rights, as forced bodily servitude would. Anti-choicers soapbox about keeping their tax dollars from funding abortions, while pro-choicers point out that federal funding cannot be used for abortion procedures anyway. Debate spins and spins until the edges are so far from each other, the middle has no functional gravitational pull.

There is no compromising if both sides believe that they are on the right side of an issue of life and death. And abortion will continue to be the fringe issue that somehow always winds up at the center of things.