search instagram arrow-down


I read this today, in an op-ed on the CNN website:

(CNN)The longest government shutdown in history just reached the throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-stroller stage.

President Donald Trump, in a fit of pique after his State of the Union address was put on ice, grounded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday hours before she was to jet off to Afghanistan on a government aircraft.
The escalating cycle of one-upmanship risked leaving America’s two most powerful political leaders looking juvenile and oblivious as 800,000 government workers lament empty wallets and airports set up food banks for security staff.

Yes, sure, as far as it goes, but this piece, like thousands and thousands written over the past three years, is more about calling the horse race than offering meaningful analysis and making important distinctions. I can’t help but feel that If there’s a risk that both sides in this struggle are going to look equally juvenile, it’s in no small part because the purveyors of what often amounts to little more than infotainment, or the equivalent of a sporting event play-by-play, are doing nothing to help the public understand what’s at stake, and who is on the side of the angels here.

I have well and truly had enough of this “he did this and then she did that and who knows how that’s going to play in Peoria?” brand of commentary. Let us instead break down the situation as if we actually know something about the American constitutional system, and care whether it survives the Trump Presidency.

What we’re faced with here is the possibility of a radical and already overused political cudgel becoming a normal part of the legislative process. The government shutdown as a method to extract concessions is a modern phenomenon, and one unique, as far as I know, to the American political system, being yet another unintended glitch arising from their obsolete 18th century founding document. It’s a form of extortion, plain and simple, and it clearly violates the spirit of the Constitution, even if nothing in the black letter forbids it.

Here’s how the system is designed to work: you get what you want, legislatively, when you can muster the votes in Congress. You get the votes by horse-trading and haggling. If, at the end of the day, you don’t get the votes, you don’t get what you want. It’s that fucking simple.  

Now, though, there’s a third way. If you’ve failed to advance your agenda by way of the Constitutional machinery, you can simply stamp your little feet, refuse to play ball, and grind the whole governmental machine to a halt. Honestly, this isn’t just wrong, it’s ludicrous. It’s nothing but extra-legal duress, slipping through one of the Constitution’s cracks. It’s public policy by hostage negotiation, and it’s gotten out of hand.

The Constitution, sadly if predictably, has no express remedy for this. The bright boys in the silk breeches and tri-corn hats provided a President with two options when a bill lands on his desk, and two only: sign it, or veto it and chance a Congressional override. It clearly never occurred to the Framers that the President might instead do nothing at all, a stance that only works because, again unfathomably, he can get his lapdogs in Congress to go along with him by refusing to send him anything to sign or veto. Exploiting this sort of loophole has become a Mitch McConnell trademark – the reader will recall how he leveraged a conceptually similar constitutional hole during the last year of the Obama administration. It had likewise never crossed the Framers’ minds that if a vacancy opened up on the Supreme Court, the Senate would neither advise, nor consent, nor even refuse to consent to a President’s nominee, but would instead decline to do anything at all until the Senate Majority Leader got a new President more to his liking.

Thus it comes down to brinksmanship, and if the Democrats fold here, the whole system could collapse. This is why Pelosi and the Democrats simply cannot, under any circumstances, give in to Trump’s extortion, however pitiable the situation becomes for the Federal workers who’ve found themselves in the unlucky role of pawns in this wholly unnecessary dispute. They can’t. They mustn’t. If Trump wins this fight, he’ll resort to extortion the next time, and the next, whether it’s over the wall, or defunding Planned Parenthood, or the debt ceiling, or the defence budget. The Constitution’s legislative process could cease to be relevant, and the whole of government could devolve into a game of votes, schmotes, now gimme what I want or else. Any time Congress lacks the unity needed for both chambers to work together to force the matter with veto-proof majorities, the country would be ungovernable, or simply become a tyranny in which the President called the tune no matter the legislative outcome.

I guarantee you, this is not what Jefferson, Madison et al. had in mind.

As I write this, Trump has just announced – on Twitter, of course – that he will make a special announcement concerning the shutdown at 3PM Saturday. Maybe he’s going to declare his oft-threatened state of emergency, and escape his own trap by bailing it to the courts. Maybe, if there’s a just God, he’s going to cave, though he could fall short of that and offer a face-saving deal that to him amounts to the same thing, which has to be a non-starter; the Democrats are insisting that there can be no negotiation until government is reopened first, unconditionally, which is the principled stand they have to take. Since it’s Trump, it’s possible it will just be another rant. Or maybe on Monday 800,000 US Federal employees can get back to work, and collect what’s for many of them their desperately needed back pay.

He could issue an apology and beg the country’s forgiveness, too, I suppose. I don’t care if he drops his pants and dances, this affair has been an utter disgrace and nothing, now, can redeem it, or the sad, shabby imitation of a President who made it happen.

Update: He didn’t cave. He proposed a deal, but one that offered only limited concessions, including a merely temporary reinstatement of the DACA regime he himself abolished, while still insisting on his wall funding. In other words, I’ll partly fix what I broke in the first place, but give me what I want. Curiously, he never mentioned the shutdown. Politically, the ball may be back in Pelosi’s court, but I hope she continues to hold firm. Any deal made to end the shutdown rewards hostage taking.

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

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: