Americans must have been naughty this year because it looks as if one of their early Christmas gifts may be a government shutdown, courtesy of President Trump, Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). After a contentious Oval Office meeting on Tuesday, there seems little chance of agreement on a stop-gap measure to fund the government through the holidays. Unless a funding bill is passed, the government will shut down on Dec. 21.
In the televised meeting, the president repeatedly emphasized the need for border security that specifically includes a wall and threatened to shut the government down in order to get it. Pelosi and Schumer repeatedly said that they were seeking a compromise that would keep the government open.
“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” President Trump stated as the discussion became heated, “because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So, I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.”
Leaving aside that the Democrats do make valid points (a phrase I seldom have to type) about the cost, practicality, and effectiveness of the wall, the president’s embrace of the shutdown strategy is a losing proposition. Although government shutdowns play well with the Republican base, they seldom achieve their policy objectives and usually end in an abject surrender often by Republicans who normally are shutting the government down because they lack votes.
Government shutdowns call to mind the Underpants Gnomes of “SouthPark.” The Gnomes famously described their business plan as follows:
Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit
In the case of government shutdowns, the plan seems similar:
Phase 1: Shut down the government
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Victory
Like the Underpants Gnomes, shutdown advocates focus on Phase 1 and Phase 3 while the vital details of the all-important Phase 2 remain sketchy. In fact, no one has ever been able to give me a reasonable explanation of Phase 2.
When it comes to passing legislation, the Constitution is specific about the process. Those of us who came of age in the ‘80s learned about it between Saturday morning cartoons with a Schoolhouse Rock short called, “I’m Just a Bill.” The abridged version is that any bill, including Trump’s border wall funding proposal, has to be passed by both houses of Congress.
The rub for the current Congress is a detail not mentioned by Schoolhouse Rock, the filibuster and cloture votes. Even though Republicans control both houses of Congress until the new Congress convenes in January, their slim majority in the Senate means that they don’t have enough votes for cloture.
Senate rules require a cloture vote to end debate on any bill. This modern, “gentlemen’s” filibuster requires 60 votes to advance a bill to a floor vote in the Senate. In practical terms, that means that Republicans need a minimum of nine Democrats to vote for cloture and end a filibuster.
What does this have to do with government shutdowns? Everything. The only way to pass a bill is to have the required number of votes. If Republicans can’t get Democrats to cross the aisle then the wall funding bill won’t pass, shutdown or no shutdown.
The problem for President Trump is that shutting down the government does nothing to entice Democrats to vote for the wall. If President Trump leads Republicans into a shutdown over wall funding, my prediction is that Republicans will eventually surrender and agree to reopen the open the government after a few days or weeks of wrangling.
This is what happened in 2013 when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) led Republicans to shut down the government over Obamacare. The shutdown lasted 16 days during which Republican approval ratings plummeted to their lowest level in history (up to that point anyway). Republicans surrendered and agreed to a deal to reopen the government and increase the debt limit. The Affordable Care Act survives to this day. The shutdown cost taxpayers $24 billion.
The shoe was on the other foot earlier this year when Democrats shut down the government in hopes of forcing an immigration deal that would legalize Dreamers. In this case, Democrats were the ones lacking the votes and they eventually had to give in.
The bottom line is that whichever party enters a shutdown without the votes they need is going to exit the shutdown without the votes that they need. There are only two ways to change votes in Congress: compromises and elections. Shutdowns just force both sides to dig in deeper. Both parties lose in public opinion. The other big loser is taxpayers who foot the bill for all the political drama. Contrary to popular belief, shutdowns cost more than keeping the government open.
President Trump wants border security in the form of a wall, but he won’t get it from a shutdown. His best bet would be to embrace his status as an artist of deal-making and present Democrats with an offer too good to refuse. That’s what he promised in the campaign and what voters sent him to Washington to do. Pressing ahead to a government shutdown is setting himself and his party up for failure.