Government Shutdowns Never Work

[ Posted Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 – 16:57 UTC ]

Mitch McConnell has just defused the ticking Department of Homeland Security shutdown bomb, and signaled that the department will not have to shut down this weekend. No word yet on how John Boehner and the House Republicans are going to react (to say nothing of the right-wing media). But by acting this early, McConnell is allowing time for such tantrums and hair-pulling before the House actually votes for a clean D.H.S. budget bill, right before the weekend.

You'll forgive me if I take a little victory lap today. Because I've been predicting precisely this outcome for quite some time now. This wasn't all that hard to do, because it merely proves what seems to be a natural law in Washington politics: holding budgets hostage and shutting down the federal government to pick some political fight never works. It didn't work back in the Bill Clinton years, it didn't work for the Tea Partiers a year and a half ago, and it didn't work this week. Predictably.

The only thing the angry Republicans are going to gain out of this fight is exactly what they could have had in the first place, before the battle was even joined. Don't believe me? Here is what I wrote about the "cromnibus bill" last December, which set up the political fight we're having this week:

The reason for this mashup bill is to allow Republicans to vent a lot of steam over President Obama's recent action on immigration, but at the same time appear to be more reasonable than shutting the entire federal government down (again) in a tantrum....

The budget is due on December 11, which doesn't leave a lot of time for such factional maneuvering. Boehner is facing the same problem he's had all along with his caucus. The base is hopping mad and spoiling for the biggest, most visible fight with Obama they can possibly manage to stage -- but Boehner knows it's ultimately going to be a losing battle for Republicans because the bigger the fight, the more severe the consequences of failure, and the more blame Republicans will get for such failure. If the cromnibus stalls out in the House, to put this another way, it does not bode very well for Congress getting much of anything done for the next two years. Instead, it'll be shutdowns and fiscal cliffs, as far as the eye can see.

The whole point of the cromnibus was compromise -- compromise within the Republican Party. The Establishment Republicans could prove to the pundits that they could act (mostly) responsibly, while the Tea Partiers could vent their feelings without wrecking everything in sight. But you have to remember that "compromise" is a dirty word to Tea Partiers, no matter whether the compromise is internal or external. Their constant refrain is: "We will never have this amount of leverage over the president ever again, so why don't we use it now?" They never take into their calculations what the aftermath will be, but Boehner has to.

Boehner even offered the Tea Partiers what used to be sufficient to assuage such back-bench rage: before the cromnibus vote, he'd hold a protest vote on a bill denouncing Obama's "lawlessness" -- which will then go precisely nowhere in the Senate. This may not be enough for the Tea Partiers, though.

Got that? A protest bill was offered to the Tea Partiers, before the D.H.S. fight even existed. They scoffed at it. They forced the D.H.S. fight anyway, deluding themselves that it would somehow be a winning political issue for them. But, as McConnell just announced, all they are now going to get anyway is the same protest vote they were offered in the first place, even after creating the Frankenstein's-monster "cromnibus" bill and attempting to hold the D.H.S. budget hostage. In other words, this entire exercise was merely more proof that John Boehner cannot control his own caucus in the House. The whole battle was a fiasco fought to gain exactly the same thing Boehner offered the Tea Party at the start. Another circular Republican firing squad.

The Tea Partier "let's have a big unwinnable fight over immigration" faction in the House was always doomed to fail, of course. Which I pointed out, a month ago:

Most rank-and-file voters don't understand these esoteric parliamentary dynamics, though. The Republican base has been in a celebratory mood ever since the midterms, because they think they are now in "full control" of Congress. They're not going to be satisfied with half-measures. They are setting themselves up for some massive disappointment, to put this another way.

Earlier this month, I even went as far as predicting that this won't be the last time the hardliners in the House set themselves up for such massive disappointment.

The extreme House bill can't pass the Senate. The two Republican leaders are still swearing that there will be no shutdown. What this means is that they'll have to pass a "clean" funding bill for the department, which is exactly what both President Obama and the Senate Democrats have been pushing for. There's no other way out of the dilemma -- that's the only "plan B" that's going to work. Even if Republicans could magically convince eight or nine Senate Democrats to vote for the House bill (which is not going to happen), President Obama would just veto it. As I said, this is a losing battle for Republicans, but they haven't seemed to have figured this out yet. The only other option is a partial government shutdown, which would result in an agonizing waiting game which would last right up until Republicans accepted reality and went ahead and passed a clean bill (which is exactly what happened the last time the Republicans shut down the government).

The final bill will likely be created in the Senate. With the 60-vote filibuster bar, compromise will be necessary. Democrats are holding firm that all of the language aimed at undoing Obama's new immigration policy needs to be stripped out of any bill they vote for. It's only a matter of time before McConnell bends to this reality, really.

Of course, it'll probably take until the very last minute for things to move. This is the only way things get done in Congress, these days. This way, Boehner will have to (after making a big show of reluctance) introduce the Senate bill to the House, where it will pass with a combination of Democratic and Republican votes. The Tea Partiers will go ballistic, since that is what they are best at doing. The department will be funded, and the blame game will begin in earnest on the Republican side. The only real question is whether this happens at the last minute, or slightly after the last minute.

The Republican base, if history is any guide, is not going to be happy being schooled in the realities of how Congress actually works. You can almost hear the cries now: "We control both houses of Congress -- why aren't we forcing Obama to bow to our will?" Boehner and McConnell are going to have to explain this to the base, and my guess is that it won't be the only time in the next two years that this reality is going to have to be defined in such a fashion.

Right after the Senate voted three times in a row on the poison-pill House bill, I again (I seem to like that "the only real question" formulation, don't I?) pointed out that this was really an intra-Republican political struggle -- the Democrats were removed from where the real blame game was going to take place, when the dust settled:

No matter how much ranting and raving we're in store for (from both McConnell and Boehner) over the next few weeks, the outcome seems pretty certain. Democrats are simply not going to "get up off their ass" and become Republicans. Republicans can bloviate about those dastardly, intransigent Democrats all they like (which I'm guessing will be "a whole lot"), but the real viciousness is going to be reserved for the "House Republicans versus Senate Republicans" battle. Either McConnell or Boehner is going to eventually cave first, and thus bear the brunt of all the scapegoating from the Tea Partiers. The only real question which remains is who will blink first.

Just yesterday, I coined a new term for the more mathematically-challenged of the Republican Party. Also, note that the "only real question" changed once again (the only real question is how often Chris uses "the only real question," eh?).

In fact, this is likely how the standoff is going to end. Mitch McConnell is going to have to bow to the reality that the big bill the House Republicans sent over cannot pass his chamber (and would get vetoed, even if it did). So the only real possible answer is going to be to separate what the House passed into two discrete bills -- one that contains a clean budget for D.H.S., and one that allows all the Republicans to vent their rage at President Obama to their heart's content. The first bill will pass both chambers and be signed by the president. The second will not. The only real question is whether the clean budget bill will fund the department all year, or just for the next few months (so Republicans can have this pointless and unwinnable battle all over again, later).

Congressional Republicans who cannot do basic math will be outraged. Call them the "Ted Cruz wing" of the Republican Party -- those folks who don't understand the reality of not having a veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress, and who thus think that merely "holding our ground" will somehow magically win the day for them in the end. They will denounce the tactic of splitting the bills apart, because they will see all their supposed leverage disappear as a direct result.

Which brings us up to date. The only real question now (ahem) is how loudly the Ted Cruz Wing of the Republican Party will howl. Their strategy of "even having a Plan B is admitting defeat!" has gone down in flames, once again. Predictably. Mitch McConnell is creating a clean bill, which will pass both the Senate and the House by the end of the week. A protest bill will get a vote, but will be meaningless since it'll never even get to President Obama's desk. The entire cromnibus strategy was nothing more than a gigantic waste of time and energy for Republicans. And America.

I do give McConnell credit for bowing to reality now instead of, say, late Friday afternoon. By not pushing hard right up against the deadline, McConnell can allow a few more days of posturing from both sides, but in the end the clean Senate bill will pass and be sent to the House. The House will have very little time to act, as the clock will be ticking down. Boehner will be forced to bring up the bill for a vote, and it will pass with a huge Democratic vote aided by a handful of Republicans. The bill will go, late Friday night (that's my guess), to the Oval Office. It will be signed and the paychecks for D.H.S. workers will not be interrupted.

All for what? What was achieved by this entire cromnibus exercise? Nothing. Not a thing. Republicans picked an unwinnable political battle, which they proceeded to then lose. As I wrote earlier:

How, one wonders, did Republicans ever convince themselves that "We're going to force Obama to deport immigrants and secure the border by attempting to defund the agency that deports immigrants and secures the border!" was a viable political plan? It makes no sense on the face of it. It never did.

The hostage-taking was ludicrous. It'd be like Republicans threatening to halt all money to the Pentagon -- because nobody sane would believe them. National security is an absolute obsession for Republicans, so why would anyone seriously entertain the idea that they were going to shutter the Department of Homeland Security? Can you imagine what the public would have said if the department had been shut down and then some random terrorist attack happened (say, within a shopping mall)? Republicans were never going to go through with their threats.

I am belaboring this point for two reasons. The first is purely egotistical, because who doesn't like a little victory lap when your predictions are proven correct? Ahem.

The second, however, is in the hopes of the general rule being recognized and adopted into our political lexicon: Government shutdowns never work. They just don't. Whether the hostage is kidnapped or kidnapping is merely threatened, the ransom is never paid. No U.S. president is ever going to agree to demands made in this fashion. They can't, really. If they did, then this would become the budgetary norm every few months. Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton fully realized this. Future presidents will do the same thing, if the tactic is ever attempted again.

Mitch McConnell realizes this, which is why he moved to avoid the D.H.S. shutdown. His only two options were to shut down the government and get nothing but public scorn and anger in return, or not shut the government down and avoid such anger. He wisely chose the latter. In neither instance were Senate Democrats going to "cry uncle" and suddenly start voting for the Republican poison-pill bill. In neither instance was Obama going to sign such a bill into law. The only difference would be in public perception. John Boehner really knows this, too, which is why he'll grumble for a day or so but eventually put the clean Senate bill up for a vote.

It all only goes to prove, once again, that government shutdowns simply don't work. They don't achieve any political goal at all. And they never will.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Government Shutdowns Never Work”

  1. [1] 
    LewDan wrote:

    I'm not that versed in procedure but I would've assumed the Dem demand that the House also promise a clean bill has to do with not kicking the can into reconciliation, not just Dem political posturing. Is that wrong?

  2. [2] 
    Teacher1941 wrote:

    The question before the 'house' is whether Senator McConnell can be trusted to adhere to any agreement he offers. Once the Democrats abandon the filibuster the GOP (Grope Our Panties) can attach as many poison pen amendments as they chose.

  3. [3] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    This is just Awesome......

    The shut down has arrived. I have spent my entire day preparing for the 27th at midnight when all of a sudden the Coast Guard drops what they are doing and comes back to the US.

    Now all I have to worry about, whilst I stew over having to do a bunch of extra work that ultimately I will not get paid for, is whether or not Congress will pass a funding bill that covers the gap of the shutdown period. Nothing quite like to worry about the 350+k that uncle sam will owe me once the DHS defunds.

    Not only do Government shutdowns never work they overwhelmingly cause harm to the economy and small businesses. All for the selfish aggrandizement of politicians who can't seem to actually legislate on anything meaningful.

    Like I said just Foxtroting AWESOME

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Teacher1941 -

    Welcome to the site! Your first comment was automatically held for moderation, but from now on you should be able to comment and see them appear instantly.

    One caution: don't post more than one link per comment, as that will cause the filters to hold the comment for moderation (which can take some time). Separate multiple links into multiple comments, and you'll avoid this.

    And again, welcome to the site!


  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "shutting down the federal government to pick some political fight never works."

    Anybody else old enough to remember "Hey Rocky,watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!

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