Government Shutdown 2013: Don't Negotiate With Hostage-Takers


Pretend for a moment that America lacked a constitution, that it had no guiding charter which established a framework of government, separation of powers, and guaranteed rights or liberties. If you wondered what kind of government that America might produce, the Republican Party has helpfully provided an answer. Unable to advance its legislative agenda through Congress or the presidency, the “Grand Old Party” has decided it might as well not govern at all. For the second time in two decades, Republicans have demanded a Democratic president execute Republican political policies or face government shutdown. If they can’t govern, no one can.

You’d be forgiven for wondering how it even got to this point. After all, where does the Constitution give the House of Representatives the power to shut down the federal government? It doesn’t, but it does grant the House the power to initiate government spending. Partisan politics and divided government have kept the United States from passing a formal operating budget since 2009. Instead, Congress has been forced to repeatedly pass bills known as Continuing Resolutions (CRs), which provide short-term funding in lieu of a traditional budget.

The last Continuing Resolution expired at 12:01 AM Tuesday morning, and with it has gone the government’s legal authority to spend money. That means no paying salaries, purchasing supplies, or operating federal programs, with some exceptions for “essential” personnel such as soldiers and diplomatic staff. Normally, Congress would simply pass a new budget or CR, but Tea Party Republicans demanded something extra this time around: the long-sought repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, also known as Obamacare). They would also accept legislation designed to defund or delay its implementation, with the same eventual intent. Individual Republicans have made additional demands which would amount to enactment of the party’s entire legislative platform.

Personal opinions on the law aside, this presents some obvious issues. While Congress wields the power to adopt or repeal specific legislation, the Constitution grants that power to the legislature as a whole, not a single faction of a single party in a single house. There exists no constitutional mechanism for a single house to dictate the terms of government policy, just as there exists no constitutional mechanism to shut down the federal government itself. But there are loopholes, and Republicans have proven themselves willing to abuse them for political gain. Be it the filibuster, the debt ceiling, or a shutdown, the modern GOP is more than willing to risk the credit and credibility of the United States to get what it wants.

And there lies the real problem. Republicans wield a 53% majority in the House of Representatives, represent a minority in the Senate, and just last year lost their second bid for the White House in a row. They claimed that the 2012 elections represented a referendum on health care reform and other Obama policies, then watched as Americans returned the president to power. The American public in every possible way denied Republicans the power to enact their legislative priorities, including repeal of a law which was passed through Congress, signed by the president, and found constitutional by the Supreme Court.

Their shutdown threat represents nothing more than an attempted coup d’état against the wishes of the American public and the spirit of the Constitution. Should President Obama “negotiate” with Republicans on such terms, it would only legitimize their methods as viable for each and every future legislature, Democratic and Republican alike. Why would any political party bother attempting to pass legislation or pressure the executive to effect change when they could simply wait for a budget or continuing resolution to expire, then demand concessions to allow government to function?

The president’s health care reform law is indeed unpopular, despite the increasing popularity of its constituent parts. But no party, Republicans included, have ever declared war on imperfect (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid) or unpopular (No Child Left Behind) legislation. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate’s minority leader, famously declared that his party’s top priority was “to make him [President Obama] a one-term president.” At this point, can anyone seriously deny that the GOP has put partisan politics above everything else, especially when Americans overwhelmingly oppose their attempts to defund Obamacare by 57% to 36%?

Republicans are asking for a government unbound by laws, reason, or sanity. They are asking the country to abandon the framework and powers established by the Founders in 1787 and accept instead the tyranny of a minority government. Liberals are understandably outraged, though one might have hoped conservatives would join in the condemnation. They have for years claimed that theirs was the party that stood for the Constitution and intent of the Founders, that they believed in process and the rule of law. Their silence in this 11th hour is truly deafening.

One cannot negotiate with hostage-takers, not even when they are members of the United States Congress. If the choice is between a functioning federal government divorced from the Constitution or a darkened one still dedicated to its principles, there is really only one solution. Shut it down.

You can read more by Daniel Shea on his blog, Outside(r)LookingIn.