By David Thornton
This year it is Democrats who are threatening to shut down the government to block funding for President Trump’s border wall. Fresh from their victory in blocking reform of the Affordable Care Act, Democrats say that they will filibuster the annual appropriations bill if it includes money for construction of the wall. The bill must pass before April 28 to avoid a shutdown.
“I thought we were going to get a check from Mexico,” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said in Politico. He added that the wall will “accomplish nothing. That’s $30 billion that can’t go into cancer research, diabetes research and veterans care.”
In recent memory, it has been Republicans who have threatened to shut the government down. The most recent example in 2013 followed several shutdowns during the Clinton Administration. While Democrats have been guilty of fomenting shutdowns, we must look all the way back to 1990 for the last example of a Democratic Congress shutting down the government under a Republican president.
While government shutdowns are not uncommon, they also are not popular with voters. Virtually every poll that asks about a government shutdown shows the voting public overwhelmingly opposed to and angry at the prospect. While shutdowns can be popular among the partisan base, most voterswant the parties to work together for the good of the country.
When the Republicans shut down the government for 16 days in 2013, they not only failed to achieve their goal of defunding Obamacare, they also saw the party’s approval rating fall to a historic low. A year later, Obamacare’s skyrocketing increases in health insurance premiums and chronic problems with registration on exchange websites saved Republicans from an electoral drubbing. They weren’t so lucky in 1996 when Republican-led shutdowns arguably cost Bob Dole the presidency and ushered in a second term for Bill Clinton.
If Democrats haven’t learned from past shutdowns, Republican leaders apparently have. “We’re not going to have a government shutdown,” Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said on CBS last month. “The president doesn’t want to have a government shutdown.”
Ryan suggested that the battle over appropriations for the wall could be delayed until next year since plans for the wall have not been finalized. “The big chunk of money for the wall, really, is … next fiscal year’s appropriations because they literally can’t start construction even this quickly,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed, saying on Fox News that he was “very confident” that a shutdown could be avoided and argued that the Democrats had the most to lose from a potential shutdown. “I would advise President Trump: ‘Don’t worry about them sticking that label on you. Congress owns the government shutdown brand,’” McConnell said. “There’s no incentive, frankly, for either side to go to the brink.”
Republicans say they intend to keep controversial items out of the appropriations bill. Funding for the wall will be delayed and a measure defunding Planned Parenthood is likely to be inserted into the budget reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered. This may mean that Democrats are left with no hot button issues to demonize in the appropriations bill.
Nevertheless, Democrats in the past have shown a propensity for overreach. Overconfidence after the health care battle and an irrational emotional response to the mere existence of the Trump Administration could lead Democrats into a shutdown battle over nothing.
With President Trump’s approval rating at 35 percent in a recent Quinnipiac poll, Democrats would run the risk of blowback from a shutdown. The strategy might make the president more popular at their own expense. A maxim attributed to Napoleon is, “Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.” Democrats would be smart to follow the French emperor’s advice.