We'll entertain our thought experiment in a moment, but first, some background: If Congress misses its Friday deadline to pass legislation to fund the federal government, we will have our first Trump-era partial government shutdown ('partial' because the large majority of federal spending is already on autopilot). Republicans forced a wildly unpopular shutdown in 2013 in a quixotic attempt to withhold funding from Obamacare -- an outcome to which the president and his party would not agree. The GOP's tactic paid zero policy dividends an was heavily panned by voters; that said, it did not end up hindering the party's ability to win a smashing victory in the following year's midterm elections. Now it's the Democrats who find themselves in the driver's seat of a potential shutdown. They are pledging to block any spending bill that funds certain Trump priorities. Battle lines are drawn, negotiations are underway, and alleged offers are being bandied about:
Lawmakers passed a stop-gap spending bill in December to fund federal agencies through midnight next Friday. Congressional leaders are now scrambling to reach a bipartisan compromise on new legislation to keep the money flowing through fiscal 2017, which ends on Sept. 30. It's possible they may pass a short-term measure to keep the government funded for a few days or weeks past Friday's deadline to give themselves more time to negotiate. "We’re making great progress on funding the government, avoiding a shutdown," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a recent interview with the USA TODAY Network, referring to top Senate and House leaders of both parties. "Our worry is that the president will come in and insist on certain things that couldn't get the support of everybody." Among Trump's demands that could derail Democratic support for a deal: $1.4 billion to begin building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, $18 billion in cuts to domestic programs, stripping funds from Planned Parenthood and allowing states to stop federal grants from going to "sanctuary cities" that protect some undocumented immigrants from deportation. However, Democrats may support at least some of the approximately $30 billion that Trump wants to add for defense programs and combat operations. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said Thursday that the shutdown fight is "the first real test of whether or not the Democrats — specifically in the Senate — are interested in negotiating, interested in compromising."
Note the framing here. When the shoe was on the other foot four years ago, did the media report on "Obama's demands that could derail Republican support" for a bipartisan deal? No, the onus was laid on "poison pill" items being pushed by the GOP that Obama said he could never accept. Applying that same standard today, it's Democrats' insistent opposition to funding border security, and to protecting sanctuary cities, and to maintaining a taxpayer gravy train to a scandal-plagued major political donor, that could force a shutdown. And thus many of the very same Democrats who treated a GOP-triggered shutdown as an apocalypse are now open to trying one of their own -- perhaps confident that the media will help them blame their opponents for the outcome, and that the public is generally inclined to finger the 'anti-government' party for any funding impasse. Meanwhile, the Republican Senator who is perhaps most associated with embracing shutdown tactics is amusingly wringing his hands and preemptively blasting Democrats for toying with the idea. Yet everyone involves seems to wonder why people distrust the press and generally despise Washington.
The vote-counting reality is that even though Republicans control the Senate with 52 votes, they'll need at least eight more to advance a government funding bill. The legislative filibuster remains firmly intact, even after the Reid Rule was invoked on the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination. And despite holding a sizable majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans will likely need Democratic votes to pass funding with a simple majority due to opposition to spending increases from fiscal conservatives. So Democrats have leverage on both ends of Capitol Hill, and they know it. If a deal isn't reached, their bet is that they can muddy the waters and pin a shutdown on the party in power, even if they're chiefly responsible for it. But putting the blame game off to one side, let's presume for the sake of this argument that the parties will be unable to settle on a plan to stave off a partial shutdown. Might the Trump administration consider eschewing the Democrat-inspired tradition of recent years of engaging in "shutdown theater"? This is a practice, employed by Presidents Clinton and Obama when locked in government funding fights with Congressional Republicans, in which the presiding presidential administration seeks to make the consequences of a partial federal shutdown as publicly-known and acutely-painful as possible. Two examples that exemplify this strategy are Obama ordering barricades erected at national monuments in Washington during the last shutdown, blocking tourists from seeing sights that would otherwise have been easily accessible to the public. This led to civil disobedience from war veterans:
The closure of D.C.'s war memorials continues to be a source of contention for tourists and law enforcement officials. Like the hundreds of World War II veterans who came to National Mall to pay their respects this week, a group of Vietnam veterans found a barricade blocking the way to their memorial Friday. News4's Mark Segraves said two U.S. Park Service Rangers manning the gate asked that the group respect the government's shutdown but moved aside...The veterans then moved the barricade and walked down to the wall to pay their respects. But a flood of tourists followed even though the memorial is closed to the general public. "The consensus among the group of Vietnam veterans was we're going to go anyway. We'll go through the barricade," North Carolina resident Reid Mendenhall said. U.S. Park Police arrive to the scene, asked everyone to leave and put the barricade back into place. Conflict over the closure of D.C.'s war memorials has drawn a lot of controversy this week.
Setting up these temporary fences actually required proactive government effort, which seemed counterintuitive in a shutdown environment -- but the whole point was to show ordinary Americans that life cannot go on as normal in the midst of a partisan Beltway "crisis." The other instance that comes to mind is a quote from former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who was asked about a Republican proposal to prioritize federal spending on broadly-popular and more essential programs in the midst of a partial shutdown. The GOP had suggested that certain dollars ought to go to the front of the spending line while a broader funding plan was hammered out: Financing interest on the national debt, maintaining paychecks to the troops, ensuring Social Security payments, etc. Asked specifically about Republicans' request to also prioritize NIH research (a favorite demagogic pressure point for Democrats) Reid infamously replied with a revealing question of his own: "Why would we want to do that?" In other words, why make sensible adult decisions to mitigate the possibly harmful impacts of a partial shutdown when there are people to harm and voters to scare for political gain?
Let me stipulate that the political temptation to pursue this approach is understandably powerful, and the incentive structure obvious: Whip up the public in opposition to a shutdown, and convince them that your opposition is to blame. This, in turn, ratchets up internal pressure on the other 'team' to end the stalemate as to avoid lasting negative political fallout. Their desperation gives you the upper hand to resolve the fight on terms that are most favorable to you. But considering that (a) Democrats should shoulder the disproportionate blame for this impending shutdown, and (b) the party of Big Government will continue to use shutdown scare tactics to win spending standoffs so long as that dynamic works in their favor, perhaps the Trump White House could consider a different approach. I explored this alternative on Twitter the other day:
The president and his allies could express requisite disappointment and frustration over Democrats' shutdown while making it consistently clear that Republicans are taking action to ensure that Democratic recklessness impacts as few people as possible. The troops, Social Security benefits, NIH research, and interest on the national debt would all come first. National parks and monuments would remain open. The sun would rise in the east and set in the west. Life would go on, with the overwhelming majority of Americans experiencing no adverse effects whatsoever. Republicans could still remind voters that there's a "shutdown" underway, that Democrats forced it, and that they're working to end it -- but they could also highlight how cynical the previous administration was by going out of its way to amplify and magnify harm for political advantage. This could be, to borrow a phrase from our most recent president, a "teachable moment" for the American people: The sky need not fall during these partial shutdowns, and politicians who are invested in creating that impression aren't to be trusted. And maybe, just maybe, the federal government isn't nearly as crucial to the smooth functioning of everyday American life as Statists would like people to believe.