GELFAND’S WORLD - Back in 2018, President Donald Trump provoked a government shutdown that went on for more than a month. Ostensibly, it was about Trump's demand that the federal government should fund and build a wall along the Mexican border. You know, the one that Mexico was supposed to pay for. For the second time in the Trump presidency, the government was closed.
It was a few weeks into the shutdown that a lot of people began to realize that a functioning national government is something that is useful to have. Of those people, a lot even recognized that a functioning national government is necessary for our continued security and welfare. The economy, society, and international trade are all dependent on at least a modicum of a federal presence.
Eventually the shutdown was ended. It was mostly by Trump and his Republican congressional colleagues backing down, even though Trump of course took credit for a mighty victory on his part.
It was not by any means the first shutdown forced by a Republican congress or administration. The tactic goes back to the days of 1995, when Republican Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. The aim of a shutdown is to extort legislative and/or administrative concessions from Democrats, except when it is just a political tantrum, as the Gingrich shutdown almost certainly was. People of a certain age will remember that Gingrich had to fly in the back section of Air Force One on a flight from Israel, and he took it personally. He therefore sent the White House a spending bill with a couple of poison pills that President Clinton couldn't possibly accept, and the game was on.
There is another tactic used by Republican congresses, which we are now about to endure. It's the refusal to increase the national debt ceiling when the national debt approaches the legal limit. As economists explain (and are frankly sick of having to explain), it would be disastrous for the United States to default on its debt. To do so would put our economy in jeopardy, along with much of the remaining world's economy. It would endanger the place of the American dollar as the world's reserve currency, a condition that is valuable to Americans and to the American economy.
But the extremist wing of the Republican Party -- now defined particularly well by the 20 members of congress who voted against Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House -- has extorted from McCarthy the pledge to fight the extremists' battle against increasing the debt ceiling until concessions can be wrung from the White House. It's not entirely clear what sort of concessions the extremists will want to wring, but we are hearing rumors about cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, raising the Social Security retirement age, and for a few of the most extremely extreme, abolishing these programs entirely.
As several scholars and pundits have explained (and I have repeated here), for some reason the Republicans have this delusion that when they barely control one house of the congress, they ought to be able to force the Senate to pass, and the president to sign, laws that Democrats would never agree to.
So here we go again. The House of Representatives thinks it has a strangle hold on the rest of us, and will surely seek to apply it. The game of chicken known as the debt limit fight (and then the government shutdown) will be accompanied by pious pronouncements from the same people who celebrated the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, and who forced the House to go through those 15 votes for a Speaker.
So here's the point that they can't seem to understand:
The American people have been through numerous shutdowns brought on by the Republican Party going back to 1995 and coming as recently as 2018. They are sick to death of this game and will rightfully blame it on the Republicans when it happens the next time. And the next time could be as soon as three to six months. And before the official shutdown, there will be reductions in activity in numerous federal agencies, because we have already reached the debt limit in actuality. And every day of an official shutdown in which services are cut and salaries are not paid will damage the nation's economy and our standing in the rest of the world.
So what can we do about it?
There are various proposals floating about. One, which is actually kind of enticing, is for the president to determine that under the 14th Amendment, there is no such thing as a debt ceiling because the 14th Amendment makes clear that the United States will pay its debts. It was a post-Civil-War thing intended to prevent post-war mischief, but it's in the Constitution, and an American president could theoretically just continue to pay our debts. Here is what it says in Section 4 of the Amendment:
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
That seems pretty clear, doesn't it? The nation is obligated to pay its debts, including its war debts, but is not obligated to pay the debts of the Civil War's seceding states. This does not mean that the president or his political party can simply take on new debt by passing new laws on their own. We already knew that. But your Social Security check is a debt that the nation owes, because it is an obligation that the nation has taken on by law, just as payment of Treasury Bonds is an obligation taken on by law.
President Biden should not go begging to the Republicans on this.
Another suggestion which makes sense is that the Democrats and President Biden should not treat this as the Constitutional Crisis that the media will want to make of it. They shouldn't negotiate with the Republican extortionists. They should just sit back and let the American people tell the congressional Republicans that we are tired of their sadistic little game, and the consequences are all on them. If we go into another government shutdown -- the kind where Social Security checks are delayed, they will hear about the peoples' displeasure soon enough.
More fun and games involving a legal but unusual technique.
Another option, which could go along with the 14th Amendment ploy, is for the United States to mint coins that would be deposited into the treasury to cover federal expenses. The fun part is that there actually is a law which allows the United States to mint platinum coins, so under this law, there seems to be no prohibition to minting a $20 billion coin each day and using it to cover governmental expenses. The wilder people pushing this idea refer to a Trillion Dollar Coin, which the government would mint and deposit into its account, and thereby have the wherewithal to pay its debts for a while. When that credit runs out, they can mint another such coin.
Of course people on both sides of the issue predict that the House Republicans will file federal lawsuits in the attempt to prevent any of these tactics so that the government (and the American people) will be forced to suffer. There is the usual talk that Trump's Supreme Court will uphold a government shutdown and overturn the more creative tactics that Biden could try. But some of the advisers on the Democratic side -- the ones we might charitably think of as the angry advisers -- suggest that the president should simply ignore the Supreme Court if it were to attempt to intervene. The people pushing this approach talk of FDR getting destroyers and war material to our allies in Britain and Russia during the worst days of the German attacks.
The need for retribution
We've enjoyed several years in which laws have been properly passed and signed, even though the most conservative politicians were opposed. They always seem to want to overthrow such laws just as soon as they get control over one house of the national legislature. We may remember how the House of Representatives passed bills trying to overturn the Affordable Care Act time and time again, ultimately reaching 50 such votes. They had no alternative approach other than to let people remain without medical care.
It has become obvious that a relatively small number of Republican zealots wants to make war against the rest of the United States. Their red state supporters take more from the federal government than their blue state opponents on the average. But while they are enjoying the government dole, they seek to enforce their own views on abortion rights or even the right to teach the true history of slavery. Governor DeSantis of Florida is even now seeking to forbid any school in Florida from teaching the history of Blacks in America. The Big Lie they continue to recite about Trump actually winning reelection is just one more part of this new civil war.
The Democrats in the Senate and the White House (with whatever aid the Democrats in the House can provide) should adopt the same attitude that the House conservatives have adopted, and that is that this is a war. They need to fight it. Let's consider the specifics.
The red state Republicans fully expect the Democrats to fund all their states' projects, including the numerous military bases and NASA facilities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Keeping those federal entitlements running is part of their program. But they are more than willing to cut the other side's provision for affordable health care, for Social Security payments, for reproductive services, and for the routine federal programs such as the ability to get a passport renewed or the ability to move a container through customs.
The Democrats should make clear that negotiation has to be a two-way street. The Democrats in the Senate should quietly make sure that each of the districts represented by the House 20 will receive nothing as long as the debt ceiling limit remains as an extortion point. The Democrats don't have to say anything or do anything in particular. They just have to allow the rumors to float that there will be retribution against the districts represented by Gaetz and Jordan and so forth. If Kevin McCarthy's Bakersfield district takes a hit, so be it.
But it's long since time that the Democrats make clear that the war between the states (21st Century version) won't be fought with two arms tied behind their backs. If it's to be war -- and the debt ceiling limit fight is clearly the opening salvo in the latest episode of this war -- then it will be fought.
Right now, the Democrats can just sit back and watch the Republicans damage their brand by putting the government into a shutdown. But when it is over and the Republicans have angered the majority of American voters, it will be time to communicate that such attacks do not come free.
And in the meanwhile, during the next three or six months in which the shutdown will be discussed and then will be instituted, it will be up to Joe Biden and his administration to (ever so quietly) make sure that the districts of the House 20 are starved of any special favors that the administration might ordinarily do for them. There are hundreds of such favors that get done over the country during the course of a year. By engaging in a course of active aggression against liberalism, the Republican conservatives should be led to discover that they will endure a little passive aggression coming from the other direction. And it is their constituents who will feel the sting.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)