“My staff has always said ‘don’t say this,’ but…” is a frightening disclaimer for the communications staffers of any member of Congress to hear. But it can be especially cringe inducing when the person reciting the line has a terrible habit of not only saying things over the warnings of his staff but also saying things he shouldn’t even have to be told not to say. Joe Biden falls into this category. And so does the author of the above line, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The full version of that quote, from 2008, is: “My staff has always said ‘don’t say this,’ but I’m going to say it again, because it’s so descriptive because it’s true. Leader Boehner mentioned the tourists lined up in summer, winter–long lines coming into the Capitol. In the summertime, because the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. And that may be descriptive, but it’s true.”

Reid may have been channeling Biden with that “literally,” but it’s the sort of quote that Democrats like Reid and Biden give because they know they’ll get a pass from the media in the way a Republican never could and they seem to be engaged in a decades-long competition over who can be the first to make conservative bloggers’ heads literally explode. Today, Reid offered yet another example of this tendency. The Washington Free Beacon provides the transcript of an exchange Reid had today on the government shutdown with CNN’s Dana Bash:

DANA BASH: You all talked about children with cancer unable to go to clinical trials. The House is presumably going to pass a bill that funds at least the NIH. Given what you’ve said, will you at least pass that? And if not, aren’t you playing the same political games that Republicans are?

HARRY REID: Listen, Sen. Durbin explained that very well, and he did it here, did it on the floor earlier, as did Sen. Schumer. What right did they have to pick and choose what part of government is going to be funded? It’s obvious what’s going on here. You talk about reckless and irresponsible. Wow. What this is all about is Obamacare. They are obsessed. I don’t know what other word I can use. They’re obsessed with this Obamacare. It’s working now and it will continue to work and people will love it more than they do now by far. So they have no right to pick and choose.

BASH: But if you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn’t you do it?

REID: Why would we want to do that? I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own. This is — to have someone of your intelligence to suggest such a thing maybe means you’re irresponsible and reckless.

One of Washington’s worst-kept secrets is that Reid’s attitude toward most people ranges from miserable on his best days to uncommonly vicious on his worst. When he describes members of the public as unwashed masses to their face, he isn’t being playful. He holds most people in utter contempt, and despite the best efforts of his staff, he usually tells them so. It’s refreshingly honest in its own way, but it does not exactly grease the wheels of compromise.

That was evident earlier this week, when Reid’s office threatened to release private emails from Republican House Speaker John Boehner that would portray Boehner as a squish and a hypocrite on the issue of congressional subsidies for insurance. Not only would it be a breach of trust–it’s one of the few unwritten rules Reid hasn’t yet broken–but it could also threaten to weaken Boehner’s ability to strike a deal to end the government shutdown. In other words, the move would accomplish nothing except potentially embarrass a politician Reid wanted to take a swing at.

And so, the next day, the emails leaked with, as the Atlantic noted, “Reid’s fingerprints all over it.” So Reid is upset. But the larger question is, what is upsetting Reid so much that he’s taking it out publicly on Boehner, reporters, and cancer patients? What has Reid so rattled?

The answer probably has something to do with what precipitated each outburst this week. Republicans have read the polls showing the public does not want the government shut down over ObamaCare, and they want to change the narrative. So every time the Democrats raise the cases of victims of the shutdown, Republicans respond by calling Democrats’ bluff and offering up funding bills that would solve the dilemma.

That raises a different question: if Republicans are willing to pass all these spending bills, why won’t they just remove the strings and fund the whole government? And the answer is because they are–intentionally or not–demonstrating just how much of the government is not essential. John Steele Gordon wrote yesterday that the shutdown exposes the waste in the federal government: if most employees are non-essential, what on earth are taxpayers paying all those salaries and benefits for?

Republicans are willing to take each issue, determine its importance, and lay out the requisite money to fund it. The danger of this approach for Democrats is that any rational cost-benefit analysis of the entire federal government exposes the bureaucratic money pit Washington has become. So when Reid asks why he should want to help a kid suffering from cancer it’s not because he is indifferent to human life, it’s because only an all-or-nothing approach to budgeting can hide the massive waste of taxpayer money that defines his vision of governance.