Consider sequestration. It was designed, by both parties, to be as painful as possible so as to spur lawmakers and the President to find common ground on the budget. It didn't work, of course, and we're living with the consequences. But did you remember that sequestration was in place? Probably not, if you're like me and you don't make much explicit use of government services. (Certain so-common-we-never-think-about-them things, like the interstate highway system, are about the closest a lot of us get to genuinely federal services.)
Yet there was one federal function whose sequestration-caused cutback came very close to causing a lot of very high-profile pain: air-traffic control. I had hoped that the media-made spectacle of frustrated business and leisure travelers, not to mention their direct complaints to lawmakers, would put a boot in Congress' posterior. It did, but not in the way I had hoped. Rather than prompting Congress to deal with the budget as a whole, it made House Republicans whip up a special exemption to the sequestration rules that allowed the FAA to restore full funding for controllers. It passed the House, then the Senate, and was signed by Obama almost before the ink was dry.
That lightning-fast compromise, seemingly enacted within a couple of days, pissed me off in no uncertain fashion, because the very visible and vocal pain of sidelined travelers would have been exactly the kind of consequence that Democrats could and should have used to drag Republicans back to reality. Instead, Democrats, including the President, allowed the GOP to do exactly what they wanted: to fund only those parts of government that they liked, or at least that the public wouldn't let them curtail. Meanwhile, the extremely poor, who make for lousy visuals on TV (and who have no lobbyists in D.C.), got screwed in no uncertain terms.
The same lack of pain is on display with the partial shutdown. Notice that everyone knows it's only a partial shutdown. Social Security checks go out, Medicare isn't noticeably affected, servicemembers are being paid, agricultural subsidies are still being paid — all the GOP's core constituencies are being cushioned from the shutdown's effects. If Social Security checks weren't being cut, do you think asshats like Michele Bachmann or Joe Barton would have cheered the shutdown or be minimizing the possible effects of a debt default? Do you think Boehner would be letting himself be led around by the nose by the far right nutjobs in the House? Hell, no: he'd be hearing the screams of his angry constituents without even picking up the phone, and he would be huddling in the Oval Office 24/7 until a deal was hammered out. If we were having a real shutdown, the genuine meaning of federal spending might even penetrate the hardened concrete around the brains of grassroots Tea Partiers.
There could be genuine, lasting (as in permanent) pain on the way if the far right succeeds in triggering a debt-ceiling-mediated default on the national debt. However, it's the sort of pain that will first hit the GOP's big-business wing, and big business isn't, for the most part, driving the nutjobs holding the House hostage. The irrational and ignorant citizenry shouting "bring it on!" won't feel the pain for a while, and when they do — when they discover that interest rates on loans have skyrocketed and that D.C. needs to make really painful cuts to long-sacrosanct, supposedly non-discretionary outlays like agricultural subsidies and, uh oh, Medicare — the reality-challenged idiots that elected the destructive morons who triggered the crisis in D.C. won't make the connection. The right-wing media cocoon will blame it on Obama and Congressional Democrats, I guarantee it, and the half-wits who get their news only from these outlets will continue to fuck over the rest of us by mulishly continuing to behave self-destructively.
Until or unless the scarily-uninformed, more-than-reactionary zealots of the far right actually are made to hurt because of a lack of federal services, they will continue to be shrapnel in the machinery of government — and the rest of us will continue to be screwed over by them.