Over at TPM, Josh Marshall has been stressing about the possibility of the “Mother of all Government Shutdowns.” His view is, essentially, that since the GOP will have to fold over taxes and the fiscal cliff — given that doing nothing at all raises taxes even more — they will come back with a vengeance over the debt ceiling fight in February. This strikes me as a plausible concern, but isn’t really even close to the “Mother of all Government Shutdowns.”
The debt ceiling is a complete artifact, and if push really comes to shove, there are all sorts of creative option for waging a debt ceiling fight, including platinum coins, declaring it unconstitutional, and of course, the ability to target the shutdown in ways to that generate maximum political pressure on the GOP. What infuriates most of us about the debt ceiling issue is that while the GOP likes to pitch it as preventing Obama from unilaterally borrowing and spending, it is really about funding already authorized government spending and operations. But there is the rub.
“Already authorized government spending and operations.” That’s where the real power lies, the classic power of the purse. And I wonder if we’re not heading for a situation where having exhausted other forms of hostage taking, we may not rapidly get to the point where the GOP simply refuses to pass appropriations. Indeed, I can’t quite understand why this isn’t actually the where the fight occurs since (a) it is unquestionably a Constitutional approach, and (b) is a chance to actually shape, on GOP terms, the outlines of a shutdown. In a debt ceiling fight, the President gets to prioritize spending with available cash. In a budget fight, the GOP can pass or hold certain parts of the appropriations process and essentially choose which parts of the government it wants to shut down. So, my suspicion is that, ultimately, regardless of the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling, the crisis will ultimately revolve around the appropriations bills at some point down the road.
Anyway, all of this is a long intro for my real thought, which is that at some point the GOP is going to graduate from hostage taking to premeditated murder. Grover Norquist has famously claimed he would like to shrink the government down to the size where he could “drown it in a bathtub.” Well, the GOP can largely already do that, if that wanted. By simply refusing to fund government operations, they can, essentially, kill the federal government. Now, they’ve never wanted to do that in the past. They’ve just wanted to tinker at the margins. But the GOP is increasingly becoming a rump party — not in the sense of being a bunch of asses, though that is also true — but in terms of a shrinking electoral base.
They are only going to get more desperate, more extreme. And sooner or later, they are going to shutdown the federal government not as part of a negotiation, but as an end in itself. It isn’t as dramatic as shooting up Fort Sumter, but the effect would be the same.
Personally, I like the Bismarck option. Facing a budget crisis in Prussia, “He contended that, since the Constitution did not provide for cases in which legislators failed to approve a budget, he could merely apply the previous year’s budget. Thus, on the basis of the budget of 1861, tax collection continued for four years.”
Basically, the argument is that the American Constitution was not meant to allow for 50 percent + 1 of a single chamber of Congress to effectively dissolve the union by simply refusing to appropriate funds.
I don’t actually know that we’ll get to a crisis this severe, but then again, it never occurred to me that we’d face periodic crises over the authority to borrow money for already approved spending. We’re in uncharted territory here already, so I, at least, refuse to allow myself to be surprised by even the most outlandish scenarios.
Also, too… This is a good place to note the importance of filibuster reform, since the filibuster makes this an option for 40 percent +1 of the Senate to attempt.