Who’s Responsible for the Shutdown?

January 20, 2018

The question dominating the media just now is ‘who is responsible for the shutdown of the federal government?’ Is this a #ShumerShutdown or a #TrumpShutdown?  For me it’s the not the most important or interesting question, but it is worth considering.  For me — and of course I’m a partisan — it’s a McConnell/Trump shutdown.

Here’s Paul Ryan’s take, simple and straightforward:

At this hour, the federal government is needlessly shut down because of Senate Democrats. This did not need to happen. But it is important for people to understand why it did.

On Thursday, this House passed a bill to keep the government open and extend the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers nearly 9 million children from low-income families. No games, no strings attached.

Last night, Senate Democrats blocked the bill and shut down this government. But why? What part of the bill do they oppose? The answer is: they have no problem with any of it. We do some crazy things in Washington, but this is madness.

Senate Democrats refuse to fund the government unless we agree to their demands on something entirely unrelated: immigration. It is a shakedown strategy, and in 2013, Senator Schumer himself said: “No matter how strongly one feels about an issue, you shouldn’t hold millions of people hostage. That’s what the other side is doing. That’s wrong and we can’t give in to that.”

I don’t see anything false in what Ryan says.  Most Democrats voted against last night and most Republicans voted for, so isn’t it that simple, Democrats are to blame?  For me, no, on two considerations.

(1) In the run-up to yesterday, Trump sketched a series of conditions for a bill he’d sign.  A bi-partisan group of six worked out a compromise that (a) met all those conditions, and (b) was supported by a majority of Senators.  Trump blew that compromise up in the “shithole” meeting.  That was the more noteworthy aspect of that meeting, not Trump’s offensive language, but his backing away from his earlier conditions (and very late in the game) at the behest of radical Republicans.

(2) If you are the majority party in the Congress, and even more so if you also are the party of the Presidency, you have a positive obligation to govern.  In the House, Ryan has nearly total control over what matters can be voted on.  In the Senate, McConnell does have complete control.  Hence, the gang of six compromise could never come up for a vote, because McConnell didn’t want it to be voted upon.  A bill giving legal security to Dreamers could command comfortable majorities in both houses, but neither Ryan nor McConnell would allow such a vote.  Similarly, a clean, stand-alone bill reauthorizing CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program) could gain majority votes in both houses.  But Ryan and McConnell won’t allow that.

Perhaps its not right that Ryan and McConnell have such power, but the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader have had such powers for many years.  If you have such powers, however, you have an affirmative responsibility to use those powers to govern successfully.  At a very bare minimum, that means keeping the government functioning. That means working with all elected representatives (Republicans and Democrats and Independents) to find solutions that can yield enough votes to pass.

Under Ryan and McConnell, that’s precisely what has not happened.  Each has worked only with members of his own party.  That was true of the tax bill, true of the various assaults on healthcare, true of nearly everything: no hearings, no effort to gain Democratic votes, no effort to seek a governing coalition.  With this continuing resolution, Ryan put up a bill he that he could pass with enough votes only from Republicans, and McConnell allowed a vote only on this same bill in the Senate — even though it needed at least 10 Democratic votes to pass assuming he secured the votes of everyone from his own party.  This isn’t constructive effort to govern, this is gangster behavior: your money or your life.  This is Republicans, knowing Democrats care more about what government does than they do, daring the Democrats to vote no.

And remember, McConnell has a majority in the Senate, but he couldn’t even muster that 50-votes or more majority from his own party.  Four Republican Senators voted no.

In a parliamentary system, McConnell would have lost his leadership position in suffering such a defeat.  His ‘government’ would have fallen, and likely new elections would be called.

This was a #TrumpShutdown because he blew up the bipartisan compromise that could have passed, and a #McConnellShutdown because he failed to work out an alternative compromise that could command enough votes.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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