Congress, the butt of so many jokes over the centuries of the American experiment, may have stumbled onto a quack cure for what ails it. Some senators, of both the Republican and Democratic persuasions, are talking about passing a law to require Congress to stifle itself when it is called on to deal with a budget.
These senators, according to The New York Times, think it’s “past time to enact legislation that would essentially mean that the government would remain open at existing spending levels when an impasse such as the fight over the border wall was reached, rather than shuttering parts or all of the government.” Shutting down the government is something that “virtually everyone agrees is costly, unnecessary and even embarrassing.”
The old gray lady has obviously been hanging out with bad company, which can be tough on the reputation of any adventuresome girl, young or old. But “everyone” does not agree. Some of the dissenters, no friends of shutdowns, nevertheless understand that such a cop-out is not OK, and cite Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution that keeps getting in the way of the foolish notions and nostrums of the radical left.
Article 1, Section 9 plainly says that “no money shall be drawn on the Treasury but in consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” (The Founders were great fans of capitalizing everything.)
Nevertheless, Congress being Congress, the notion is being treated as something deserving respect. “Shutting down the government should be as off-limits in budget negotiations as chemical warfare in real warfare,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee. He has a point, perhaps, but at the moment he had better be careful reminding everyone that Congress could get a whiff of the mustard. Some bad ideas can sound tempting.
The idea of this Congress trying to deny a successor Congress the right and opportunity to use its powers to do its assigned job sounds bizarre. Congress in the past has never been appreciative of tips on how to cut itself down to size. One senator eager to apply the blade now is Mark Warner of Virginia, who has come up with a bill called “Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years. (Mr. Warner is clearly not a poet.)
His proposed legislation, which even Barack Obama’s attorney general called “blatantly unconstitutional,” would cut off pay for legislative and White House officials. However deserving such folks might be for such cuts, the legislation runs into another constitutional obstacle. The Constitution prohibits cutting the pay of Congress and the president during their terms of office.
The New York Sun calls this the constitutional mockery movement. “Into its serried ranks are filing scores of officers and employees who have sworn to support a constitution they haven’t thought about or secretly abhor. Rarely, though, have we seen such a mockery as a Congress denying itself the power to shut down, on occasion, a runaway government.”
Other, briefer shutdowns were blamed on Congress. Bill Clinton, who had three shutdowns, and Barack Obama, with one, each got a pass. The Democrats and their media arm have been effective in making Donald Trump, sometimes with his help, a villain for all seasons. He doesn’t deserve all the blame this time, but he’s getting it all anyway.
As a consequence, running for president against the Donald is the current Democratic rage. Announcing an “exploratory committee,” which is shorthand for “exploring what money pots may be available,” will get almost anybody a slot to meet the press on a Sunday morning when he should be in church. The count now is 22, or 23 or 24; the number changes almost hourly. Even Hillary is tempted. One of the latest is Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks whose big achievement there was a brief attempt to get Starbucks baristas to hector customers to sit still for a lecture on race. Starbucks survived, but Mr. Schultz didn’t.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California followed, with the promise of a California agenda and a California record of achievement — free health care and confiscatory taxes to pay for it, a record as state attorney general with a scandal a day, including sexual harassment accusations for her top aide, accusations of mishandling evidence and two years as a senator with not a single successful bill having become a law, which may be her only positive accomplishment. It’s not much to run on, and her party will need more than all that.
The Democratic senators are making like the villain in a film noir who leaves a clue written in lipstick on the bedroom mirror: “Stop me before I kill again.” The voters of 2020 have their job cut out for them.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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