The three instances in living memory in which Republicans in Congress embraced a strategy which led to shutting down the government, the results were disastrous for their party. While there is some debate on the right as to just how lasting that damage was, it is universally accepted that the public did not approve of the GOP’s actions and registered their dissatisfaction.
It takes two to tango, and the government does not shut down only as a result of the actions of the minority party. Yet, the public blamed the GOP in 1995, 1996, and 2013 when the government ceased non-essential activity as a result of budget impasses. Americans gave the GOP a mandate to shrink the rate of government growth in the 1990s, and the public was and remains deeply mistrustful of the Affordable Care Act today. yet each time the government was shut down over these two issues, the public disapproved and disproportionately blamed Republicans.
Conservatives would be deluded to conclude that another shutdown would somehow buck this trend. Despite the gravity of the issue that might force it – Barack Obama’s proposed unilateral implementation of aspects of the Senate’s failed immigration reform bill – a new government shutdown must be off the table if Republicans hope to prove to the American people that theirs is a responsible governing party.
They cannot, however, sit back and do nothing in the wake of this nearly unprecedented disregard for a coequal branch of government by the executive. The Washington Post’s editorial board warned Democrats on Tuesday that the precedent Obama would set with such a sweeping executive order would come back to haunt them when Republicans eventually retook control of the White House. Some smart conservatives and political analysts, as National Review’s Charles Cooke noted on Monday, are coming around to the idea that revenge is the only politically practicable course available to the GOP. He does not welcome this eventuality.
“I am afraid that I consider this approach to be little short of suicidal, and I can under no circumstances look forward to a system in which the executive may pick and choose which laws he is prepared to enforce,” Cooke wrote. “On the contrary: I consider the idea to be a grave and a disastrous one, and I would propose that any such change is likely to usher in chaos at first and then to incite a slow, tragic descent into the monarchy and caprice that our ancestors spent so long trying to escape.”
He advises the GOP to fight this potential abuse of power by the executive, and there are alternatives to a government shutdown available to Republicans. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York recently observed that, while Republicans in Congress are clearly predisposed to avoid a new shutdown at almost all costs, they are coming around to the idea of using the power of the purse to neutralize Obama’s assumed authority to rewrite immigration law.
“Republican sources liken the contemplated action to Congress’ move to stop the president from closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay,” York wrote. “In 2009, lawmakers denied Obama the money he would have needed to proceed. Guantanamo remains open.”
But even if a move to counter Obama passes the Senate with 60 votes, the president will veto it. At that point, a shutdown battle could occur — but it would be a battle over shutting down the small part of the federal government tasked with enforcing the immigration order. Everything else would remain up and running.
That’s a far cry from what happened in October 2013. And now, in light of the GOP’s midterm victories, some Republicans are re-assessing that epic shutdown battle, too.
If this were to occur, Barack Obama, liberal Democrats, and their allies in the press would apply all their power and influence to propagate the notion that Republicans had again shut down the government. They would, however, be deprived of the images of shuttered post offices, or war memorials and public zoos manned by joyless sentinels preventing citizens from making use of them.
Moreover, some honest Democrats appear disinterested in helping their fellows craft the dubious narrative that the GOP had forced a suspension of governmental activity in a tantrum over the legalization of much of America’s illegal immigrant population.
“It happens all the time,” outgoing Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told National Review’s Joel Gehrke. “That’s not uncommon that there’s amendments saying ‘none of the funds in this appropriation bill may be spent for’ — fill in the blank.”
White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest warned in August that even a threat to close the government over immigration would not stop the president from exercising what he believes is his executive authority. But even Levin does not consider what Republicans are considering a true shutdown.
He described withholding funds for the executive orders on immigration as a standard congressional procedure that should not be confused with shutting down the government.
“That’s not slash-and-burn,” he told NRO. “That’s not bringing down the government. That’s a fairly traditional, targeted approach to make a policy point.”
It is hard for the public to envision how a relatively small thing like Obama’s contemplated executive order on immigration could snowball into a constitutional crisis of a magnitude unseen since the 19th Century. Nevertheless, American political historians and columnists see those very storm clouds on the horizon. The opposition party has both a right and an obligation to resist Obama’s imperious attempt to expand the power of the executive. Despite the fact that their path is fraught with political peril, the GOP seems to be settling on a course of action which would blunt Obama’s actions but not sap them of either legitimacy or support. Theirs would be a circumspect response, but also a smart one.
The Republican opposition must remain viable if they hope to reverse the excesses of the Obama era after 2017. By refusing to either implode or roll over in submission, the GOP could foil Obama’s last, most desperate gamble.
This post has been updated since its original publication.