There are three reasons there might be a government shutdown later this summer. The first is that a group of conservative lawmakers are pushing for it. The second, as New York's Jonathan Chait points out, is that key staffers who prevented a shutdown in 2011 have moved on. And the third is that nearly all of the members of Congress who served during the last shutdown have moved on, too.
A confluence of delayed or recurring decisions are timed to intersect in September. Congress will consider raising the debt limit during the first week. A funding measure passed in March runs out at the end of the month. And while Congress bickers over those two things, a group of senators are demanding that any money for Obamacare be excluded—or else they'll block any funding resolution entirely. If that happens, the government shuts down.
The last time the government shutdown was in the era of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, between December 1995 and December 1996. It was a political move calculated to make President Bill Clinton look bad as he entered his reelection year. It did not work, and it did not work in spectacular fashion.
In 2011, as Congress was debating the same issues as it will next month, a shutdown was averted. In part, that was thanks to Republican staffers who worked as liaisons with Democrats to reach a compromise. Now, many of them are gone. Chait:
John Boehner's policy aide, Brett Loper, who cut the big budget deal with the White House in 2011 that the House GOP caucus blew up, is now a lobbyist. But the big departure, [the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery] reports, is Rohit Kumar, McConnell's aide and the key Guy in the Room when the administration and the Senate Republicans defused the debt-ceiling bomb. Kumar is not what you'd call a moderate, but he does understand policy detail — an "evil genius," one Obama adviser calls him. …
Things have gotten pretty bad when the departure of an evil genius actually makes the situation more dangerous.
Remaining House members
It's not only staffers that have departed. Perhaps surprisingly, only about 80 percent of current House members were around in 2011. In the Republican party, that figure is slightly higher; about 85 percent of the House Republican Caucus was in place two years ago.
But the institutional memory of the last shutdown is almost entirely gone. Despite House seats having no term limits, only one-fifth of the House of Representatives was there in 1996 — and only 15 percent of the Republican members of the House. In other words, about 200 of the House's 234-member caucus were not on Capitol Hill when Gingrich's move went down. Like many of the rest of us, they certainly remember when it happened; even the youngest possible House member would have had to have been born in 1988. But that's different from experiencing it first-hand, much less being part of the discussions about why it should or shouldn't happen.
A shutdown is still unlikely—possible, but unlikely. For those members of Congress who saw the damage it did to the Republican party, watching from the sidelines as Congress walks the same path must be frustrating.