Back in August, I annoyed some folks by pointing out that then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s campaign pledge to use spending bill riders to stop President Obama’s executive policies amounted to a promise to re-embrace government shutdown politics.
As it turns out, the ongoing Department of Homeland Security mess is exactly what his promise looks like in action. Republicans won’t pass legislation to fund DHS, unless it includes ancillary measures to end President Obama’s deferred deportation policies. And unless they change their minds, DHS funding will lapse.
To escape culpability, Senate Republican leaders are trying to kick the issue back to House Republicans; and all Republicans want everyone to blame Democrats for filibustering the House's rider-laden DHS funding bill. It’s reached the point where a few House conservatives are pushing Senate Republican leaders to nuke the filibuster altogther, and where even House Speaker John Boehner is calling Democratic obstruction of the House bill “as senseless as it is undemocratic.”
This is rich coming from the same Boehner who just over two years ago claimed to “fully support Leader McConnell’s efforts to protect minority rights, which are an essential part of our constitutional tradition.” He even vowed to block any legislation Democrats passed by dint of filibuster reform.
Needless to say, Democrats didn’t change the legislative filibuster back then, which means Boehner circa 2012 got his way. But 2012 Boehner was wrong, and 2015 Boehner is correct. The filibuster is senseless and undemocratic, and the current impasse over DHS presents a unique opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to eliminate it together, once and for all.
I say unique, because what’s frustrating Republicans right now is at the heart of what makes the filibuster so odious. It’s not just that it’s undemocratic, as Boehner says, but that it badly distorts accountability for the triumphs and failures of elected legislators. Republicans aren’t upset because they won’t get their way—they know Obama is still president and would veto their DHS funding bill. They’re upset because the filibuster obscures the true nature of the partisan disagreement, and makes it much more likely that they’ll be blamed for a partial DHS shutdown.
As it happens, I think Republicans will be blamed anyhow, and rightfully so. Bill Clinton won his shutdown fight with Republicans in 1995 and 1996, despite the fact that the shutdown stemmed not from a filibuster but from a veto. The president has a bigger bully pulpit than anyone in Congress, and the public seems generally sympathetic to the argument that Congress shouldn’t pick divisive ideological fights in the context of routine but essential legislative tasks—like funding the entire government or the Department of Homeland Security.
But Republicans won’t ever get a chance to make the counterargument—that Obama would resort to shutting down DHS to save his immigration actions—because of the filibuster. The public instead sees a Congress under Republican control unable or unwilling to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
That’s great fun for Democrats, and suits my personal substantive preference for preserving the deferred action deportation programs. But it’s all rooted in a skewed sense of the degree of consensus on Capitol Hill. Majorities in the House and Senate want to do away with the deportation programs, and to present Obama a choice between those programs and continuous funding for DHS. Put another way, Republicans want to give Mitch McConnell a chance to test Obama’s commitment to various administrative policies with routine shutdown fights, as he promised he would throughout the campaign last year.
McConnell should get that chance. Obama seems to think he should too.