As the recent mid-term elections progressed towards their culmination, and in their immediate aftermath, one theme clearly emerged for the Tea Party Movement's success: They are ready to shut down the federal government to enforce spending discipline. While choking government operations by fiscal inaction is outrageous, we have all been warned that extreme behavior is the Tea Party's norm.
Given the attitude at the White House, unless there is some planning it is more likely than not that these antics will work. And if the Tea Party folks succeed, it will benefit Republicans at the expense of others.
The Coming Tea Party-Sponsored Government Shutdowns
Mark Meckler, a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, pounded the shutdown drum before the election. Tea Party supporters in the Republican leadership have now joined the effort, and there is a growing consensus that we are headed towards one or more government shutdowns, or threats of shutdown, to implement the radical Tea Party agenda.
Causing shutdowns, of course, is not a new gambit. But bringing the government to a halt by refusing to enact appropriations legislation is, in fact, an exclusive ploy of Republicans, and it has been used by both Capitol Hill and the White House when under GOP control. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has prepared excellent monographs on prior government shutdowns, looking at their causes, effects and process as well as potential solution s -- which Republicans have made sure have gone nowhere.
This tactic operates with about the same finesse as those used by Mexican drug lords. As the Tea Party Movement candidates enter the Washington political arena -- with their penchant for Second Amendment remedies -- shutting down the government could be one of their friendlier strategies, unless, of course, the GOP establishment co-opts this crew. But yesterday's Republican radicals, like Mitchell McConnell and John Boehner, actually look reasonable if put in a room with Rand Paul and Michelle Bachman -- the poster people for the Tea Party.
Threatened shutdowns are political tantrums, and thus a form of extortion. If such behavior is rewarded, it will only become more frequent and demanding. Historically, when exposed and dealt with firmly, these efforts have failed. But the Tea Party -- along with other Republicans -- views Barack Obama as a weak president, not without reason, so they have everything to gain and nothing to lose by using this approach.
Government-Shutdown Situations: How They Have Historically Played Out
Under Article I, Section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution -- often called the "appropriations clause" -- funds cannot be drawn from the Federal Treasury, or obligated by federal officials, unless Congress has appropriated the money by law. In addition, under the Anti-deficiency Act, which has been the law almost from the nation's founding, federal departments and agencies are prohibited from acting -- except in matters of emergency and national defense -- without an appropriation.
As the country has grown more polarized, particularly since the Reagan Administration, it has become increasingly difficult for Congress and the White House to agree upon the appropriations needed to fund the federal budget. Accordingly, when Congress fails to adopt the annual appropriation, Congress enacts and the president signs a continuing resolution to temporarily fund departments and agencies until the appropriation has been enacted and signed into law. Refusal to enact an appropriation, or at least to enact this kind of continuing resolution, will bring about forty percent of the government to a halt until differences are resolved. Appropriations must be made annually.
Another disruption point is the federal debt limit, which has been steadily increased over the decades. By law, federal spending cannot exceed the debt limit, which is also established by law. Thus, when the federal government reaches its debt limit, Congress must agree to extend it, or the Government will default on its obligations that exceed the limit. Such a default, of course, could have catastrophic implications for the world's financial market. Theoretically, a handful of filibustering U.S. Senators, hell-bent of not extending the debt limit, could create world financial havoc. Economists say that the debt limit will need adjusting by January or February 2011.
These situations have created an opportunity for Republicans -- who love to profess fiscal responsibility when they do not control the Congress and the White House -- to employ their extra-constitutional, if not unconstitutional, tactics to impose their will and embarrass Democrats, by using the threat of closing down the government by refusing to appropriate funds or adjust the debt limit.
Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush I used vetoes of continuing resolutions that resulted in shutdowns to try to impose their will on Democratic Congresses. And, more famously, Republican Speaker Of The House Newt Gingrich refused to pass a budget when Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was president, unless the Congress was given what the GOP leadership wanted. The Reagan and Bush I shutdowns lasted only days and cost taxpayers only a few million dollars. The Gingrich shutdown, which lasted almost three weeks, cost billions of dollars. Democrats in Congress, and Bill Clinton, refused to be extorted. So the shutdowns failed.
Government should not be a costly game of Blindman's Bluff, which hurts our country in the eyes of the world. Indeed, all federal officials, including both presidents and members of Congress, are oath-bound not to do what Republicans have repeatedly done when cutting off funding, or threatening to do so, for government operations. Tea Party candidates will soon be taking that oath as well, but I am not sure they will honor it. More than likely, they see the Congressional Oath as merely a pro forma ceremony before taking office.
In fact, oaths are public promises, and pledges for future action. Honoring an oath is a matter of character. And there are not different oaths for Republicans, Tea Party people, and Democrats; one oath applies to all.