Margolis: This is not your father’s shutdown

Norman Rockwell's portrait of President Richard Nixon. Creative Commons photo

Norman Rockwell’s portrait of President Richard Nixon. Creative Commons photo

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

We never had any problems like this under Nixon.

You won’t encounter that many folks who remember Richard Nixon these days, much less who remember him somewhat fondly. At times – when, for instance, he was not directing a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy – Nixon could be kind, helpful and a bit shy.

And pragmatic, at least when it came to domestic fiscal policy, perhaps because he didn’t really care about domestic fiscal policy. But whatever the reason, Nixon spent 5½ years as a Republican president with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, all without a single government shutdown.

In fact, the government shutdown was not invented until 1976, when Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, vetoed appropriations bills for two departments: Labor and what was then Health, Education and Welfare. But the rest of the government churned on as usual. Two years earlier, Congress had passed the Budget Impoundment and Control Act, which changed the beginning of the fiscal year from July 1 to Oct. 1 and raised this whole question of whether departments could continue to spend money if the fiscal year began before Congress and the president had approved their budgets.

There were a few mini-shutdowns under the next president, Jimmy Carter, even though he was a Democrat and there were Democratic majorities in both houses. Here again, though, these mostly involved only a few departments. They weren’t a big deal.

Reagan is remembered more fondly than Nixon by most of us who covered both of them. … But he would never have led a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy.

Ever (excessively?) conscientious, Carter asked his last attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, whether any department could continue spending money if a budget bill had not been passed. Ever (excessively?) conscientious, Civiletti said it could not. In fact, he concluded, a department secretary who allowed his staff to continue coming to work under those circumstances could go to the pokey.

Enter Ronald Reagan, who in November of 1981 vetoed a budget bill because it didn’t cut domestic spending as much as he wanted. This time, the whole government shut down.

But not for long. Hours later the Democratic-led House caved, passing a three-week extension with more domestic spending cuts.

President Ronald Reagan.

President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan and the House, led by his ideological adversary but occasional after-hours drinking buddy Tip O’Neill, had several such tussles, a few of which resulted in government shutdowns. But they were all short – three or four days, all of them over weekends. Again, they were no big deal.

The one going on now is a big deal, and the differences between then and now are poorly understood. It isn’t just that inter-party relations were more civil then. They were, but the differences are more basic, starting with the people involved.

Reagan is remembered more fondly than Nixon by most of us who covered both of them. He, too, could be kind, helpful and a bit shy (or maybe, in his case, remote). But he would never have led a conspiracy to subvert constitutional democracy. He was all for constitutional democracy, in a way that some of those who consider themselves his political heirs may not be.

At least as important, all the earlier shutdowns over the budget were … over the budget. They were disputes about how much the government would spend. Sometimes other issues were involved – abortion during the Carter years, and the MX missile when Reagan was president. (If you are under, say, 50, and don’t remember the MX, don’t worry. It is not important now and perhaps never was, though it certainly cost a lot of money).

But in the final analysis, the stalemates were over how much money would be spent on abortion or the MX. That’s why they were part of budget bills. The same holds true for the longer shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, when President Bill Clinton and House Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich couldn’t agree on Medicare financing. Yes, their different visions of what Medicare should do was part of the problem. But the deadlock came down to how much money would be spent.

Today, spending does not matter. President Barack Obama and the Democrats immediately surrendered on the spending accepting the Republican plan that bakes in last spring’s multibillion-dollar “sequester.” Instead, this shutdown is about Republican insistence on scuttling the Affordable Care Act, a law which finances the system it establishes. Repealing it will not reduce spending (though it may increase the deficit).

In short, this shutdown is not about the budget.

So what’s it about?

Well, maybe constitutional democracy.

The guys who set up this constitutional democracy 224 years ago deliberately established a system in which it is hard to make major changes. First, the faction that would make the change (or, in this case, unmake it) has to win elections, usually at least two of them, enough to take control of both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The Republicans who want to get rid of “Obamacare” did win part of one election in 2010, taking control of the House of Representatives. But they didn’t win enough. Then they lost last year’s election. Their candidate who promised to repeal Obamacare lost to the president after whom it is nicknamed. Under the constitutional democracy established 224 years ago, then, they don’t get to make their major change.

Some of them seem to be in denial, not only about the elections that did happen but about the elections that will happen. In this constitutional democracy, they come around every two years. If the health care law is a failure – if people cannot get affordable coverage or companies start laying off workers rather than provide health insurance for them – then Republicans will almost surely win control of the Senate next year and the presidency in 2016.

Then they’ll get to make their major change.

That’s constitutional democracy. What’s happening now is … well, not quite an attempted coup d’état, but a step in that direction. It is an attempt to impose the losing party’s policy preference without going through the process of putting that policy preference into the form of legislation, getting it passed by both houses of Congress and then approved by the president (or overriding his veto).

That process is called constitutional democracy. This shutdown is an attempt to subvert constitutional democracy. Some of us who knew him suspect that Ronald Reagan would not have approved.

Jon Margolis

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