Gov't Shutdown Politics at Its Worst

The problem with “must-pass” legislation is that it must pass. So, as the deadline for passing a Continuing Resolution to keep the government funded looms at midnight tonight, congressional leaders are busy trying to cobble together enough votes to pass the CR in both chambers of Congress. The process is ugly and the results are ugly and, yet, our political leaders seem incapable of passing a budget in good time, with ample opportunity to debate particular legislative proposals.

This time, the shutdown shoe is on the other foot. Congressional Republican leaders declined to follow Sen. Ted Cruz’s lead and refuse to fund the government unless the President rescind his recent executive order on immigration. Instead, the GOP-led House took a symbolic vote of opposition and the CR will only fund the Department of Homeland Security through the end of February, not through the end of the fiscal year like the rest of the government. This will give them a chance to try and craft the funding bill for DHS in such a way as to at least circumscribe the president’s leeway. Look for another debate about immigration reform in two months.

The opposition to the current CR is coming from the leftwing of the Democratic Party, not the rightwing of the Republican. In last-minute negotiations, congressional leaders inserted two provisions that especially irk Democrats. First, the amount of money an individual can give to either political party, tripling the current limit so that anyone with an extra $3.1 million on hand can now bestow it on the party of their choice and its various fundraising committees. As a general rule, it seems obvious to everyone with eyes to see that the quality of our nation’s political life has not improved by throwing more money at political campaigns. Restricting the amount of money individuals can give faces constitutional hurdles, hurdles with which I disagree – money is not speech, corporations are not people – but which are not likely to disappear anytime soon.

That said, at least this provision allows more money to flow to the parties rather than to independent groups and if it has the effect of strengthening the parties, which today have virtually no authority, that would be a good thing. Independent groups tend to push single issue agendas that distort the values of all politicians. And, strengthening party leaders might allow each party to face down some of demands made by individual interest groups on behalf of the whole. If today’s Democrats had the equivalent of John Bailey at the DNC, they would not have just wasted a campaign cycle fighting for access to contraception and net neutrality and other fringe issues. If today’s Republicans had a similar leader they would have long since passed comprehensive immigration reform. The days when decisions made in smoke-filled rooms are gone but the quality of decisions made in those rooms were better on the whole than what we get now, and anything that brings back some political muscle to party leadership is not an entirely bad thing.

The other thing that especially angers Democrats in the must-pass CR is a provision that weakens the Dodd-Frank law that strengthened government oversight over Wall Street. Dodd-Frank prohibited banks from using government-insured funds in trading derivatives: Banks can trade derivatives all they want, but they can’t risk taxpayer-insured deposits when they indulge in risky trades. The CR now eliminates that provision. It is a bad thing to be sure, a step backwards at a time when I wish the Democrats were moving forward on regulating the financial industry. They should have be highlighting the need to bring back Glass-Steagall which prohibited traditional banks from engaging in investment banking activity entirely. But, the Democrats hand was weakened when a stand-alone measure repealing the Dodd-Frank restrictions passed the House in 2013 with support from some 70 Democrats. And, the Democrats just had an opportunity to run against Wall Street during the campaign and, instead, they ran on silly issues that only mattered to fringe voters and inside the Beltway interest groups. They have no one but themselves to blame.

Those of us who are concerned about the wind going out of the sails of progressive politics should prepare for more bad news. The fact that this CR tilts so heavily towards accommodating Republican concerns is a sign of things to come: When the Republicans take control of the Senate chamber in January, that tilt will become even worse. But, progressives need to call Democrats to account too. They need to start articulating a post-Obama political vision, and the centerpiece of that vision must be a more populist economic platform that directly addresses income inequality, declining wages, and the loss of social capital in working poor and working class neighborhoods. If the continue to divide the electorate into a group of single issue constituencies and base their campaigns on cobbling together enough of such groups to win, there will be no vision. Even if you win that way, you can’t govern that way.  


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