A threatened government shutdown over the Planned Parenthood videos will do nothing except damage the country and highlight Congressional dysfunction.
Yet again, we are approaching the end of another September without enacted legislation funding the federal government for the next fiscal year. “Inconceivable” you say. Exactly.
Although there are many factors that have brought us to the precipice of another shutdown, the most pressing is the fact that a vocal group of House Republicans is exorcised over the Planned Parenthood videos that surfaced in July. According to this group, these videos purportedly show that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of fetal tissue. Unwilling to wait for the various House investigations into Planned Parenthood’s practices to be completed, this group of (rabid) Republicans has already forced the House to pass a standalone bill to defund Planned Parenthood. They are now threatening to prevent the passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open after September 30th unless it also defunds Planned Parenthood.
There is, of course, another side to the story. Planned Parenthood has apologized for the disturbingly clinical and graphic discussion of abortion procedures while emphatically denying the claims that it profits from the sale of fetal tissue or that its abortion practices otherwise violate federal law. In addition, there is no dispute that the videos were selectively edited to remove content that contradicts the very claims being made by House Republicans.
Against this backdrop, what should Congress do? It should do its job. And its job is not to ignore facts that get in the way of a preconceived position regarding Planned Parenthood’s practices.
Although Planned Parenthood appears to have the stronger case, reasonable Members of Congress with varying views on abortion could nevertheless want to assure themselves that Planned Parenthood’s practices (and those of any others providing similar services) comply with federal law. Such Members could also explore whether federal law governing the use of fetal tissue for scientific research needs to be updated to address controversial practices that are currently lawful. These are precisely the types of matters on which Congress can hold hearings and conduct investigations. Once the facts have been found, then Congress can determine what action, if any, needs to be taken. This is its job. I know of no “Rash and Uninformed Judgments Clause” in Article I.
Congress has another job to do: Keep the government funded so that the Executive Branch can do its job. This duty is actually set forth in Article I.
Incredibly, the House appears poised to fail to perform this duty as well. The House may fail to pass a CR, which would cause a government shutdown. Or, once again ignoring facts that undermine its position, the House may pass a CR that defunds Planned Parenthood, even though the Senate does not have the votes to pass similar legislation. And even if the Senate were to defund Planned Parenthood, the legislation would be vetoed by the President. Inconveniently for the House Republicans, neither Chamber has the votes to override the promised veto. In all these scenarios, House Republicans lose and the government shuts down.
And despite what you may think, government shutdowns have substantial negative consequences. To begin with, they undermine the ability of our government to carry out its functions in the days and weeks leading up to the threatened shutdown. Instead of doing their actual work, senior government executives must devote enormous amounts of time to planning for the shutdown. Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Our government is totally dysfunctional, so there is nothing to undermine before or during a shutdown.” Although this sentiment is understandable given the well-documented struggles of various Departments and Agencies, it does not apply to the entire Executive Branch. Moreover, with the Russian military now in Syria, Chinese warships recently sailing off the coast of Alaska, and concerns about IS using the refugee crisis in Europe to its advantage, do you want the best personnel in the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, and Department of Homeland Security planning and executing operations to keep us safe or planning and executing operations to send staff home and keep the lights on during a shutdown?
Shutdowns also seriously damage the morale of the civil service. Congress likes to bash the civil service (sometimes for good reason), but seems to have no understanding of how its own actions undermine the performance of the federal workforce. How many people want to work for a boss who tells them that every so often they will have to work twice as hard without pay for an undefined period of time while the rest of their co-workers are sent home? Or tells them that they will not be working and will not be paid for some period of time, but that they will eventually have to come back to work and will eventually be paid for the time they were sent home? If you were in this position, how motivated would you be?
Lastly, government shutdowns have numerous negative economic impacts. The last one cost the U.S. economy $1.5 billion/day. When our economy is apparently so fragile that we cannot tolerate an interest rate above zero, do House Republicans – allegedly the group of elected officials most interested in improving our economy – really want to be the Party that shoots our economy in the foot?
Given the enormous downsides of a shutdown, why is the House so anxious to play the part of Don Quixote, tilting at windmills? The House Republicans say that they will cause a shutdown to prove a point. But what point will they be proving, exactly? I can think of several:
Congress does not understand its job.
Don’t take my word for it. Dust off Federalist 53: “No man can be a competent legislator who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate.” Where have you gone, James Madison?
Congress cannot do its job.
One could argue that Congress has only one actual job that it must do every year: Appropriate funds. The rest is optional.
Congress has already failed in one important respect: We do not have an actual appropriation for any part of government for the next fiscal year. We are eight days away from the end of our fiscal year, and no spending bills have passed both Chambers. Instead, we are facing yet another CR. As a result, Congress has failed to discharge its Article I duty to decide the spending priorities for the nation. This should be shameful, but it is abundantly clear that Congress cannot be embarrassed by its incompetence, irrelevance, or inaction. Instead, recent Congresses have seemed to celebrate the fact that they are the least productive in history.
Congress cannot conduct cost-benefit analyses.
Congress is clearly unable to perform the type of cost-benefit analysis that it requires federal agencies to perform in order to justify their regulations. The very complicated calculus that Congress must conduct (and then ignore) to justify a CR that will shut down the government is as follows:
- Costs of Shutdown: High.
- Benefits: None.
Congress delights in chiding federal agencies for ignoring the costs of rules and overstating their benefits. Pot calling kettle.
Congress cannot play chess.
House Republicans cannot think even two steps ahead. Everyone knows that they cannot defund Planned Parenthood. They don’t have the votes. As a result, if the House Republicans shut down government, the public will blame them (and perhaps the whole Congress) for initiating a needless fight. How well will this go down in purple Congressional Districts? Moreover, it’s a good bet that the President will cite Congressional dysfunction, including the inability to appropriate or pass a CR, as a justification for additional unilateral actions that will anger Republicans.
House Republicans might want to invite Garry Kasparov to address their caucus before they decide how to handle the CR.
In the meantime, write your Member and tell him or her that Congress needs to do its job and avoid a shutdown. Be blunt. If Congress shuts down the government over a dispute over Planned Parenthood funding, every Member should be forced to answer to the voters as to why he or she should not be fired for failing to do his or her only real job. Thankfully, we’ll have an opportunity to have exactly this conversation about “throwing the bums out” next November. Voters are already angry. Members would be wise not to make them angrier.