Economists are rushing to translate Washington's political impasse into projected economic losses, slower growth and other risks. The overwhelming sentiment is that the costs stemming from the government's withdrawal from all non-essential activities will be far from trivial, particularly if the self-inflicted crisis runs more than a few days.
But this feud could last longer than a lot of people think. Bitter infighting in the Republican ranks is pitting the right wing of the party against more centrist leaders, who actually believe the quaint notion that they have a duty to keep the government open for business.
For now, few analysts see this situation lasting more than a week, as public pressure grows for the Republicans to drop their demands for a delay in implementing Obamacare, and to let more than 800,000 public employees get back to their paid jobs. Important government agencies like NASA, the Federal Communications Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency are are all but shuttered and such key market regulators as the Commodities Futures Trading Commission have had to curtail many of their functions. On the plus side, the IRS can't do any audits and the federal court system can run about 10 days before its funds run out. But just wait until waves of upset children start texting members of Congress over the shutdown of Washington's museums and the National Zoo, including its popular Giant Panda cam.
Republicans and Democrats are busy blaming each other for the impasse, which seems like only the latest evidence that the world's most important economy is actually in the hands of a bunch of juvenile slackers straight out of the old fratboy food-fight comedy, Animal House.
The shutdown isn't the product of laziness, however; rather, it's part of a power struggle for control of the fractured Republican Party. And this time, the shrink-government-at-all-costs Tea Partiers and their allies are in no mood to strike a bargain that would leave them with nothing to show for the high-risk strategy into which they have pushed the rest of the party. They believe that they caved in too easily in earlier battles with President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, and this time, they appear to have drawn their own line in the sand. Lobby groups like the aptly named Americans for Limited Government are egging the Republicans on, telling them to continue hammering away at the provisions of the Affordable Care Act they don't like – which is most of them – even though it is the law of the land and was largely upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As long as this political faction holds enough sway, the impasse could last for months and the economic damage could spread well beyond U.S. borders.