Crystal Ball Says: Government Shutdown

by ,

I am starting a series on political predictions. I do not expect perfect accuracy and would not be at all surprised if my predictions do not come true; rather, my goal is simply to share what I think is a plausible outcome in our current environment.

I see a government shutdown coming. First, we need to talk about the confirmation fight over Judge Gorsuch.

Shortly after the Senate Judiciary Committee concluded its hearings on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, I called my senators. Unlike most progressives, though, I asked them not to block his confirmation vote. Gorsuch is a qualified, professional jurist who appears to have conservative leanings, the type of judge a typical Republican president would nominate. If you look at the list of judges President Trump said he would pick from, Gorsuch is clearly the least bad choice. I was uncomfortable with losing the Supreme Court filibuster over a purely political, vindictive motive of the inaction on Obama’s nominee last year. Besides, once the filibuster is gone Trump will probably appoint a much worse justice if he gets another chance. A fight to preserve the filibuster could garner broader support at that time. I was not alone in bemoaning this political brinksmanship. [1]

Well, that was then, and only a few days later Senator Murray announced she would help block the confirmation vote. She, Senator Cantwell and others succeeded today, and the outcome was just what we expected: Mitch McConnell triggered the “nuclear option.”

I see two explanations for why the Democrats made this move. The first is, of course, intense pressure from the Democratic base to oppose Trump’s nominee. Most of my senators’ callers wanted this tactic, and I get that. The second explanation, though, involves an interesting yet risky strategy to shut down the federal government and hope Republicans take the blame.

You see, the next big agenda item for Congress is to pass a spending bill to fund the federal government, since the current funding expires at the end of this month. There are several controversial funding priorities (keep in mind this is not Trump’s budget, that will come up in September) like adding spending to start construction of the border wall. [2] Senate Democrats may feel that having the Republicans go nuclear can insulate them from any blame associated with helping to block funding to keep the government running. They may be right; Republicans probably cannot all come to an agreement among themselves, and since they control both houses of Congress and the presidency, voters could easily conclude the shutdown is (some) Republicans’ fault. Republicans triggering the nuclear option makes them look like the worse partisans, removing any expectation of Democratic cooperation. The political ramifications are enticing, since the federal government shutting down will be yet another major embarrassment for the dysfunctional White House.

I am not personally a fan of this strategy; it’s horribly Machiavellian, risky, hypocritical, and does enormous damage to the government and the hundreds of thousands of civil servants who suddenly get furloughed with no paycheck coming to them. Yes, in every previous shutdown Congress later gave federal employees back pay, but for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck (at least 40 percent of Americans [3]) that’s of little comfort. Contractors may be worse off and have difficulties getting reimbursed. It also does nothing to protect against a worse Supreme Court nomination in the future, when Democrats could have claimed the moral high ground with a record of allowing a vote on Gorsuch. Now they could be dismissed as crying wolf.

I’m just calling it like I’m seeing it. A shutdown could be averted if Trump and the Republicans believe they have no leverage to negotiate, and pass a clean continuing resolution with a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans. This, however, requires Trump to uncharacteristically back down from starting the wall, and there are decent arguments for predicting that Democrats will be held responsible for a shutdown. Meanwhile, Democrats and their base are enraged. I believe Chuck Schumer when he said “Senate Democrats are prepared to fight this all the way.” [2] Democrats have a reputation among progressives of negotiating away their principles, so the party base will keep up the pressure. We might even see a few Senate Republicans start to discuss ending the legislative filibuster in response, depending on the vote tallies.

In 2013 the shutdown gave my wife a nice paid vacation, since we have enough financial reserves to easily weather a few weeks without her salary. We know that’s not the case for everyone, so during the shutdown we donated a sizable chunk of what we assumed she would make in back pay to the cash-strapped Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund to help those less fortunate. If I am right and the government shuts down, please consider doing the same.

Be prepared; shutdown talk emanates from the Beltway every few months and usually nothing happens, but I think this time is one of the rare exceptions.

Learn more:

  1. Democrats Should Make a Deal on Gorsuch (Washington Post editorial board)
    Democrats Should Welcome Gorsuch. Like Kagan, He Puts Law Before Politics (Jason Murray, who clerked for both judges)
  2. Hill Republicans Trying to Avert Shutdown Need Democrats—And Trump (Washington Post)
  3. The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans (The Atlantic) 47 percent of those surveyed would have to borrow or sell something to come up with $400 for an unexpected expense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *