Back in the 1970s, the comedy group Firesign Theater used to perform a sketch featuring a New Age huckster named Happy Harry Cox who inveigled money from his followers by warning them that they labored under mass delusions that only he could correct. “Dogs flew spaceships!” he bellowed in his radio advertisements. “The Aztecs invented the vacation! Men and women are the same sex! Our forefathers took drugs Yes! That’s right! Everything you know is wrong! Especially about the government shutdown!”
OK, he didn’t really say the part about the government shutdown. But he should have. Because, really, practically everything the chattering classes have told you on the subject is nonsense. Let’s look at some the myths:
—The government is shut down. No it isn’t. The troops are still fighting in Afghanistan. The NSA is still reading your email. The staff at the U.S. embassy in Caracas is still putting its fingers in its ears and waggling them at the Venezuelan government. The Postal Service is still running your magazines through shredders. By most estimates, 85 or so percent of the government is still functioning. Whether that’s a good thing is, of course, debatable.
—This kind of thing never used to happen. Actually, it used to happen all the time. What’s unusual is the quiet stretch since the last shutdown, when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton were facing off in 1995. Before that, there 18 shutdowns in 19 years as various Congresses and presidents squabbled over raising the national debt limit. My personal favorite is the one in 1982, when Congress didn’t feel like working late to pass a spending bill the night before the new fiscal year started. The Republicans were all going to a barbecue at the White House, while the Democrats had a $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner to attend.
—Well, it wouldn’t happen if not for all these crazy ideologues who’ve been elected the last few years. In the old days, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill would have just had a drink after work and settled everything.
More likely they would have broken some bottles over one another’s heads. The federal government shut down seven times while Reagan was president and O’Neill speaker of the House. No wonder, the way they talked about each other. O’Neill called Reagan “an absolute and total disgrace” and added that it was “sinful that this man is president of the United States.” Reagan, in his diary, wrote that budget negotiations with the speaker were an ordeal because “Tip O’Neill doesn’t have the facts of what was in the budget. Besides he doesn’t listen.”
—Maybe arguments over spending are inevitable. But it’s just plain wrong to hold laws on other subjects hostage to debt-ceiling negotiations, the way the Republicans are doing with Obamacare.
Over the years, government shutdowns have been triggered by attempts to change the laws on, among other things, abortion, civil rights, welfare, oil-drilling and which government agency’s economic forecast should be used for budget planning. And even if you think debt-ceiling fights should be restricted just to spending issues, the fact is that virtually everything Congress or the president does can be turned into a spending issue, because it all requires funding.
—That’s just partisan sophistry that would make the Founding Fathers turn over in their graves. Wrong: The Founding Fathers not only foresaw but approved of this tactic. That’s why the Constitution puts the president in charge of running the government but reserves to Congress the ability to rein him in through the power of the purse string.
James Madison, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, was quite explicit: “This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.”
—Are you saying you’re smarter than President Obama? Because he thinks it’s wrong to play politics with the debt ceiling. No, he doesn’t. “The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure,” he sternly said of the attempt to raise the ceiling. “It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills.” Oops, my bad. That was Senator Obama, back in 2006, when the president who wanted to increase the debt was named Bush. I guess everything he knew was wrong, too.
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald.