Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shut It Down!

Last night the House of Representatives passed emergency "patch" legislation, also passed earlier in the day by the Senate, to fund the Department of Homeland Security for, um, one week. Funding for the department was set to run out at midnight. In last year's lame duck session Republicans specifically picked this fight by agreeing to fund the department only until early this year. (Yes, this was planned in advance, as a matter of strategy.) In return, Republicans deigned to allow the remainder of the government to operate through the end of the current fiscal year, which runs through September. The renewed fight over Homeland Security funding commenced a few weeks ago, as scheduled.

The sticking point on the department's funding is that Republicans attached a provision to the funding bill reversing President Obama's executive orders on immigration. Democrats consider attaching an immigration policy provision to a funding bill to be unacceptable. Republicans figured they could cram the whole package down Democrats' throats because department funding was "must pass" legislation. Democrats called their bluff, saying they would only vote for a "clean" funding bill. Thus the current game of chicken.

The one-week extension presumably gives time to work out and pass longer term funding, which some reporters now say will happen via a clean bill next week, exactly as Democrats have demanded. Most commentators have long predicted that this would be the ultimate outcome. Many have wondered why Republicans sought this fight in the first place, since it's one they cannot win, and it crowds out other initiatives early in this new congressional session in which they control, for the first time since 2007, both houses of Congress. If Republicans had hoped to take on important new legislative projects (such as, say, tax reform), they've made a very bad start of it.

In other words, Republicans are showing yet again that they are incapable of governing. This was so in the first six years of the Obama presidency, when Republicans waged a particularly destructive form of scorched-earth opposition, including threats of debt default and a weeks-long full government shutdown. And it will be true in Obama's final two years, when Republicans were supposed to magically pivot from hostile minority to governing majority.

With respect to the current spat showing once again that Republicans can't govern, the less important indicator is that they pick political fights they can't win. Much more important is that their destructive impulses are consistently true to form. Their instinct is always to blow things up, and their political toolbox is devoid of statecraft, compromise, and reason.

The illogic of the current standoff is especially maddening. By what warped train of reason is it imagined that shutting down the Department of Homeland Security will somehow punish the president for his immigration transgressions? How, exactly, is that supposed to work? As always, the victims of this insanity are not the president, but the American people, who are the beneficiaries of the services provided by the department—not to mention government employees who will be either furloughed or (for the majority deemed "essential") required to work without pay. This is the very definition of hostage taking, and the hostages are the American people and the innocent public servants who work at the department.

Democrats are correct to resist. As a matter of principle, one doesn't give in to hostage taking because doing so begets more hostage taking. Holding innocents hostage in order to get your way can't be allowed to work. And this is so regardless of whether or not you think Obama's immigration order was correct or constitutional. (The executive order dispute is a question of law, and it is currently before the courts. That was supposed to give Republicans an "out", but they chose to not take it.)

If your partisan allegiances lead you to suggest that, no, this time it's the Democrats who are playing the shutdown game, think about it this way: The current impasse came about as a matter of considered Republican strategy when the Congress was deciding last fall whether or not to fund the entire government for the remainder of the fiscal year. Some Republicans wanted that to be the moment when the fight was joined over the president's executive action, with funding the government being their point of leverage. The deal worked out back then was to fund all of government except Homeland Security (because it contains immigration enforcement) for the rest of the year, and to revisit Homeland Security funding in the new congressional session when Republicans would control the entire Congress and presumably have an even greater ability to impose their will. So from the beginning, as a matter of intentional political strategy, Republicans envisaged a fight over keeping the department funded (or, conversely, shutting it down) as their way to force Obama to relent. At no time have Democrats plotted holding any part of government hostage to further their political ends. All Democrats have done is refuse to play the game. Democrats aren't demanding anything other than a clean funding bill.

The entire mess is rich with absurd irony. Should a shutdown actually manage to keep the department from doing its work (it mostly wouldn't, but who knows at the margins?), that would also mean enforcement agencies inside the department such as the Border Patrol would be sidelined. Smart, huh? Republicans would therefore be "punishing" the president's immigration order by keeping him from performing immigration enforcement—something they actually think he should do more of. As it happens, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is funded largely from fees, and is therefore mostly immune from funding standoffs.

Even more incongruous is the idea that the Department of Homeland Security—created by a Republican Congress and Republican administration as a response to the September 11 attacks—would find itself fighting for funding at a time when terrorist concerns are newly heightened. Even a little bit of sand in the gears is unhelpful.

It's all you can do to realize that this is the way Republicans think; trying to make sense of it is hopeless. The Republican brand will be tarnished yet again, but not as much as you'd imagine. After all, Americans should have realized before now that Republicans can't be trusted to govern, yet here we are with a new batch mucking things up. Sadly, Republicans benefit from a largely uninformed populace that only vaguely understands what's going on, a widespread breakdown of critical thinking, and a right-wing media which undergirds the entire enterprise. One can only wonder how, when, or if our country will get past this dismal phase in our experiment with self-government.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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