White House

Trump's Shutdown Threat Is Silly and Pointless

The president is slamming a deal to keep the government running. So why is he signing it?

Signing under protest.

Photographer: Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump to the United States of America: "Nice government you have there. Pity if anything should happen to it." Wait, that's not what he actually said. This is:

 

Let's go through this.

First of all, extended government shutdowns -- he's threatening one at the start of the next fiscal year -- happen if and only if one side in the negotiations wants a shutdown. I don't know what Trump was watching on Fox News (or whatever) to spark this tantrum. But it's safe to say that a president who has party majorities in both chambers of Congress and who threatened a shutdown before even formally submitting budget requests to Congress would, in fact, be blamed if a shutdown actually happens. That leaves him with little leverage. 

Second, Trump has yet to sign the agreement to keep the government operating beyond this week. If he wanted a shutdown, he could have one right now -- making his threat even less intimidating than it would have been had he waited until, say, mid-September. Chris Hayes nailed it:

That is, Trump is making empty threats to no one in particular. He is the bully who waited until the other guy is gone before howling threats and flexing biceps. 

Third point? Trump and his White House aides are sending completely different messages. On Monday evening, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney declared, "We’re very pleased with the bill." On Tuesday morning, Trump called it a cave to Democrats, instead adopting the complaints of conservative critics. Again, before even signing the bill they are upset about. 

It's clear that Trump is pinning the blame on the filibuster instead of his own inept bargaining and for the normal frustrations of legislating in a system of separated institutions sharing powers. 

He may believe that a few tweets can convince Republican senators to end the filibuster; after all, they were willing to do so on Supreme Court nominations. If that's what he thinks, he's very wrong. The Supreme Court filibuster was, by general consensus, on its last legs ever since Democrats removed all other nominations filibusters during Barack Obama's presidency (in response, to be sure, to Republican blockades of Obama's nominations). 

The legislative filibuster, on the other hand, appears to be quite healthy, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell having already ruled out any action to change it. The truth is McConnell doesn't have the votes, and is probably nowhere close to having the votes. 

The legislative filibuster empowers individual senators, and those senators are unlikely to be eager to give away that influence. Yes, it's an age of partisan polarization and most Republican senators do care about the success of the party's agenda (although not necessarily about whatever Trump decides his agenda might be). But they also care about having the ability to help their states for electoral and other reasons. Perhaps even more important is that most senators like to actually participate in governing, as opposed to just showing up and having their vote tallied in support of whatever the party leadership wants. 

It's also true that the filibuster, as Senate procedure expert Greg Koger points out, allows Republican senators to duck some very tough votes that the conservative agenda is teeing up for them and allows them to shift blame to obstructionist Senate Democrats. 

And Republican senators with a better sense of history and a greater concern for the future than their president also know that what goes around comes around, and they aren't eager to make things easy for the next Democratic unified government. 

The good news? Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress aren't likely to be impressed by Trump's threat. It's quite possible that internal Republican dysfunction could produce a shutdown in September, but Trump isn't likely to pressure anyone into anything. At least for now, he's an unpopular president pushing unpopular programs -- his Mexico wall, slashing spending for popular programs -- who already has a reputation as a paper tiger. 

The bad news? Bill Clinton's poor professional reputation in 1995 convinced Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress that Clinton would cave at the slightest pressure; their miscalculation produced two extended shutdowns, in part because Clinton needed to prove he really wasn't the weakling Gingrich imagined. If Trump decides his reputation is on the line in September, it's quite possible he could back himself into a similar situation, but this time without public opinion on his side. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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