In Defense of the ‘Dumbest Shutdown’

Yes, Rand Paul was grandstanding last night in holding up a spending bill vote. But there’s nothing “dumb” about forcing an abandonment of principle into the open. Photo: C-SPAN

I was initially annoyed at Senator Rand Paul last night as he forced a brief government shutdown because he didn’t get the chance to offer an amendment gutting the deal Senate leaders had painstakingly put together. It was the epitome of “grandstanding,” something Paul does often.

But in reading Politico’s take on what it called “the dumbest shutdown ever” — which it blamed on Nancy Pelosi as well as Paul, presumably because she opposed the deal, as she’d been promising to do for weeks — I suddenly realized that there was something pretty dumb about the conventional wisdom that once the Great Big Barons of Congress cut a deal, everyone needs to shut up and get in line so that everybody can go back to raising money for their next campaign. Here was Politico’s bottom line:

The entire spectacle was a reminder of the sorry state of Beltway politics. Even a bipartisan deal blessed by party leaders of both chambers can get caught up in extraneous drama.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Congress has had more than four months to work out a “bipartisan deal” on spending levels for FY 2018. A government shutdown three weeks ago didn’t accomplish anything other than yet another stopgap spending bill. So they finally get a “deal” at the very last minute possible, with a 600-page bill no one had read, demanding a vote so quickly that it violated Senate rules. They tossed in a debt limit suspension that would normally have been a subject of intense controversy, hoping no one would notice. Rand Paul called BS on the exercise. Annoying and self-referential as it might have been, there was nothing “extraneous” about it.

Paul’s main political objective was to do something that Senate Democrats supporting the deal couldn’t really do: point out the extreme hypocrisy of his fellow-Republicans in abandoning any pretense of fiscal conservatism the moment they had the power to pass legislation.

“I want people to feel uncomfortable,” he said of his fellow senators. “I want them to have to answer people at home who said ‘How come you were against President Obama’s deficits, and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?’”

“Isn’t that the very definition of intellectual dishonesty?” he asked.

I suppose some would say that “intellectual dishonesty” is the essence of “bipartisanship.” But it still needs to be acknowledged. Republicans knew that in passing their beloved tax-cut bill in December they were swelling budget deficits and speeding up a collision with the debt limit. That their immediate reaction was to brush aside the debt limit and swell deficits even more by engorging the Pentagon with vast new funds is worth noting before everyone celebrates a bipartisan victory.

As for Pelosi, I don’t know what her “bipartisan” critics expect. She’s been linking a spending deal to protection for Dreamers practically from the moment Trump began the clock ticking on DACA last September. During the runup to the spending deal she had scaled back her demands greatly, asking only that Paul Ryan commit to the kind of open debate on immigration alternatives that Mitch McConnell had already made. And while announcing her own opposition to the deal, she make it clear she would not exercise partisan discipline to force her caucus to stay with her (and obviously she didn’t, since 73 House Democrats ultimately voted for the deal). Yes, she didn’t publicly promise her caucus would save the day, which meant some uncomfortable late-night moments for House Republicans and the commentariat.

But that and the uncertainty experienced by the handful of federal employees aware of the brief post-midnight shutdown was what has so many people up in arms this morning, complaining about the “dumbest shutdown.” They should get over it. The GOP’s decisive, if furtive, break with the fiscal hawkery it has so often proclaimed since 2009 was a much bigger event than the success of senators in putting together a painfully obvious back-scratching arrangement where each party got the spending it wanted at the expense of any real discussion of national priorities — and at the expense of Dreamers, too. When you really look at it, the spending deal was pretty dumb, too, and nobody in Congress is in a great position to act smart about it.

In Defense of the ‘Dumbest Shutdown’