Donald Trump has decided that now is the time to withhold funding for Obamacare subsidies for millions of low-income Americans if he doesn’t get funding for his border wall. This is a typically asinine and pointless move on his part; for once, Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to have been on their way to achieving a mutually beneficial deal without creating widespread collateral damage. Democrats’ reaction to this news was to promise they will shut down the government if funding for Trump’s border wall is included in the budget. No matter which party you support, this political brinksmanship with the basic functions of government has got to stop. If we were talking about a gross, unconstitutional threat to democracy like internment camps, there might be an argument in favor of a shutdown, but we’re not. We are talking about Trump insisting on pettily defunding a duly enacted federal program without repealing it, and the Democrats insisting on withholding funding for a stupid, pointless, expensive border wall that millions of Americans explicitly voted for. The integrity of the core institutions of government is more important than any policy goal. Holding the government hostage over partisan policy preferences erodes the structure of our Republic. More importantly, from a politician’s perspective, none of the shutdowns in the past 25 years benefited the fanatics who were responsible.
Newt Gingrich is a despicable megalomaniac and his gambit failed
Now, there were government shutdowns before Newton Leroy Gingrich came along, but they were in the order of 1-3 days. Even the first shutdown in 1995 wasn’t inconsistent with this history. It lasted about 5 days. However, Gingrich’s shutdown of 1995-1996 was a precedent-setting piece of political warfare that totally failed to achieve its goals. Gingrich initiated a standoff with Bill Clinton over which numbers Clinton had used to create his budget (Gingrich wanted him to use the Congressional Budget Office). Clinton, having produced a plan designed, as requested, to balance the budget in 7 years, refused to go back to the drawing board. On this basis, Gingrich shut down the government for 21 days. The American people were not impressed. Afterward, Republicans simply caved, and accepted Clinton’s proposal. The fact that the shutdown came after Gingrich felt snubbed during a ride on Air Force One did not help his reputation or make the shutdown more effective. Nevertheless, 17 years later, Republicans thought they’d have another crack at the shutdown strategy.
The Tea Party fell on its face trying to defund Obamacare
In 2013, the most fanatical tea party advocates in the House of Representatives advocated defunding Obamacare, since they did not have the ability to repeal it. Over the summer of that year, tea party activists sent a barrage of phone calls and letters to members of Congress, demanding a government shutdown if Obamacare was not defunded. Senator Ted Cruz spoke for 21 hours on the Senate floor about his beliefs regarding shutdown. These developments forced even relatively moderate Republicans into going along with the party’s ideologues. Accordingly, the Republican House of Representatives shutting down the government for 17 days because it refused to fund the President’s signature domestic policy achievement. The shutdown ended when the Republicans were forced, due to widespread voter disapproval, to fund Obamacare. To add insult to injury, they were also compelled to raise the debt ceiling, or amount of debt the US government is able to repay, a particular bugbear of theirs during the Obama years. The shutdown was a total failure.
A failed strategy that damages government institutions is no strategy at all
It’s time to stop the madness. These ideological shutdowns don’t work! In this case, Congress seems to be working together, and Trump needs to stay out of it. Perhaps Trump is laboring under the delusion that he will get a popularity bump like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did when the opposing party shut down the government. The trouble is, both of those men were trying to compromise with fanatics in Congress, not trying to insert poison pills into the negotiation at the eleventh hour. The Democrats seem to think taking a page out of the fanatics’ playbook is a great idea. It isn’t. In the last 25 years, Congress has never gotten its way from a shutdown. In our current political environment, I am vehemently opposed to drawing false equivalencies between the Democratic Party and the GOP under Trump. That said, if Congress fails to fund the government and shuts it down, I wish a pox on both their houses.