In the last quarter century, all of us have come to know more than we’d like about petulant shutdowns of the federal government. What we don’t know, as we type these words, is whether the shutdown that began Saturday will end by the time you read this. Either way, Lamar Alexander is right. Leveraging the urgency of a moment for political gain is one thing. But using a deadline as a dagger to debilitate even this limited share of federal operations is becoming a bad habit. The ultimatum: We get what we want or we’re closing this place down.
Both major parties, driven by hubris and unjustified faith in their leverage, have pulled this stunt. Unlike, say, the State of the Union address or the Senate filibuster, the government shutdown doesn’t have a revered history. Before twin shutdowns of late 1995 and early 1996, the practice was limited to five bitsy spats, a couple of them lasting only an afternoon.
But in the three more recent episodes, the party out of power tried to parlay a tangential issue to win a budget fight. In each case, this page essentially has sided with the out-of-power party on its issue. But also in each case, we haven’t thought a shutdown was a smart way to advance its cause:
In those 1995-96 shutdowns, cocky House Speaker Newt Gingrich was justified in seeking a Medicare premium increase to help stabilize and save the program. But President Bill Clinton, though weakened by a Republican tsunami in 1994 midterm elections, held fast against the GOP’s budget for a total of 27 days. An emboldened Clinton, whom many Democrats had given up for dead after the 1994 pasting, went on to win a second term. We dearly wish Gingrich hadn’t pulled Medicare into that fight.
In 2013, Republicans were justified in seeking a delay in the rollout of Obamacare, a program whose website debacles and exaggerated signup projections soon proved itself unready for prime time. But Republicans foolishly thought most citizens would support what became a 17-day shutdown. They didn’t.
The latest shutdown began when Democrats made a stopgap budget deal contingent on shielding from deportation 700,000 young people brought to this country and protected under a program called DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Democrats gambled that with a CNN poll finding that 84 percent of Americans want DACA extended, they’d be safe in demanding that in a budget deal. But the poll, released Friday, also reported that, when asked to choose which was more important, keeping the government open or finding a DACA fix, 56 percent said the former, and only 34 percent the latter. We support DACA — and hope this shutdown doesn’t kill its popularity.
Nobody wins shutdown fights. Republicans, who hold Congress and the presidency, are vulnerable here. Yet The New York Times reports that, “For Democrats on the ballot in many of the states that President Trump carried, there is unmistakable peril in being seen as willing to shut down the government to protect undocumented immigrants brought to this country illegally as children.” Polling by a Democratic super PAC found that a DACA-driven shutdown would be damaging to Democrats in five Republican-leaning states where Senate Democrats are up for re-election this year.
Whatever the political fallout, these shutdowns succeed mostly in reassuring Americans that their dysfunctional leaders are more dedicated to winning than to solving problems. The current president rode just that sort of voter frustration all the way to the White House.