Shutdown showdown confirms powers still separate

Kelly Sloan

Regardless of whether or not the federal government shutdown has ended or continues to drag on, I suspect a vast majority of Americans can’t tell the difference.

Unless you have a federal government job that hasn’t been deemed “essential” or find yourself  climbing over gates the feds spent money to erect around certain national sites because they had no more money, chances are pretty good you’d have no idea the government had stopped governing if you weren’t told so by the newspaper, radio or television.

But to hear the Democrats tell it, you’d think Republicans had ordered the earth to stop spinning on its axis.

To be fair, the government shutdown isn’t really a good thing, even if most of what the government should be doing at the federal level is still being done  — killing terrorists or keeping airplanes from landing on one another, for instance. Like many, I have a soft spot for NASA and would like to see that agency back up and running. The National Institute for Health does some admirable work, as NPR tells us every few minutes. Having the Smithsonian open would be beneficial. Staffers at congressional district offices haven’t been insulted and harangued lately and are starting to leave themselves rambling, vituperative phone messages. And I have a friend who does fine work at the Department of Energy on a project to make sure radioactive materials don’t get in the water supply. I can see the value in that.

Of course, hiring people to remove the fortifications put up around the Washington Monument and World War II memorial are certainly shovel-ready jobs.  

The conventional wisdom spewed by Democrats and much of the media is the entire episode constitutes an unprecedented invention of intransigent Republicans bent on undermining the great Democratic (note the case) traditions of our Great Society (ibid).

Well, hold on. Government shutdowns over budgetary policy disputes are hardly an invention of the current Republican-held House. It’s not even a scheme conjured up by Newt Gingrich in 1996. Since 1976, when the modern budgeting process came into effect, government has shut down no less than 18 times, most taking place under Democratic congresses under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

I watched Chris Matthews the other night berate a Republican representative over the “immorality” and “irresponsibility” of the shutdown. Ironically, Matthew’s former boss, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, orchestrated 12 shutdowns during his tenure.

“But wait,” I hear you cry. “This one is unique in that it is an attempt to circumvent a settled law.” Perhaps. Most of the O’Neill shutdowns were the result of straight budgetary funding fights. In 1983, for instance, a shutdown was initiated over the Democratic House’s refusal to fund an intercontinental ballistic missile program.

So yes, the Democrats shut down the government for several days as a way to oppose the federal government doing something that protected the nation and helped rid the world of the Soviet threat. Republicans do the same in opposition to a federal program that will drive up the cost of health care by meddling in an industry in which the federal government has no business meddling.

And who, incidentally, is being obdurate? The Republicans offered several bills to restore funding to those things the closure of which causes the most public pain — such as the NIH and national parks — only to have them arrogantly shunted aside. One can only surmise that Democrats refuse precisely because they ARE the most ostensibly painful and therefore of greater political value — a shameful example of what might be described as political schadenfreude by a Democratic party that feels entitled to dictate free of resistance. They view opposition as intransigence, heresy against their ordained will.

But as Michael Barone pointed out, that’s not how the American system works. It works precisely because of the separation of powers and the tension there that prevents any one branch or segment from having unfettered reign. Republican insistence on negotiation rather than meek acquiescence is not obstinacy, it’s governance.

In the meantime, we can take some comfort in the fact that for most in America, a government shutdown is little more than something one sees on the news, a hopeful sign America remains a great deal more than the sum of its governing parts.