Opinion: Why the House GOP should threaten another government shutdown

"We're going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of President Obama's potential executive actions on immigration. "This is the wrong way to govern."
“We’re going to fight the president tooth and nail if he continues down this path,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of President Obama’s potential executive actions on immigration. “This is the wrong way to govern.”
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Decisions, decisions.

Congressional Republicans are torn over how to respond to President Obama’s long-expected executive order allowing more of the people who’ve settled in the United States illegally to apply for what amounts to temporary visas and work permits. Although they all see this as an abuse of power, some Republicans want to threaten another government shutdown to try to block Obama, while others want to try to roll back the initiative bit by bit.

The choice facing Republicans boils down to this: Do they repeat the hardball tactics they used last fall in a vain attempt to defund Obamacare or do they pick some battles they might, you know, win? And, paradoxically, the lesson for the GOP from the last time around may be that it’s worth playing the shutdown card again, even if the odds of Obama conceding aren’t in their favor.

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Ed O’Keefe characterized the situation as a split between conservatives (who want an all-or-nothing confrontation) and GOP leaders and less radical rank-and-file members still smarting from the 2013 shutdown (who prefer the incremental approach). Here’s a telling quote from Costa and O’Keefe’s piece:


“‘It’s a big test for the leadership. We cannot listen to the loudest, shrillest voices in our party,’ said Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who represents the Philadelphia exurbs. ‘At some point we have to fund the government, and we should not fight to attach some demand. I don’t want to stand by and watch as our party gets driven into a ditch.’”

Many pundits (including those of us on The Times’ editorial board) have argued that voters have been sending an increasingly clear message in recent elections that they’re tired of gamesmanship and dysfunction in Congress. But this year, voters also uttered a loud, collective raspberry at Obama, backing candidates in major races across the country whose campaigns did little more than denounce the White House.

Lawmakers now have the chance to demonstrate what message they took from the elections.

In a repeat of last September, federal agencies will soon run out of money because Congress hasn’t passed any of the annual appropriations bills required to keep the government running. At the very least, lawmakers will have to pass a temporary funding bill by Dec. 11 to avoid nonessential federal services going dark.

Some conservatives want the House GOP to insert into the funding bill a provision blocking Obama’s expected immigration initiatives, just as House Republicans used a stopgap spending bill last year to try to bar funding for the Affordable Care Act. Other Republicans consider this a nutty attempt to repeat a failed tactic in the hope of achieving a different result. Obama showed last year that he won’t give in, so any threat to shut down the government will, in fact, shut down the government.

Still, circumstances really have changed, even if some of the changes don’t help the GOP politically.

In the last blow-up, Democrats successfully painted Republicans as picking a fight over Obamacare that they knew they didn’t have the votes to win. That allowed Democrats to resist any compromise on the healthcare law while still having Republicans absorb most of the blame for the shutdown that ensued.

This time, Obama could be the one instigating the Thrilla on the Hilla. Democrats will try mightily to say it’s all the House GOP’s fault because of its refusal to act on the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill (an argument similar to the one made by, ahem, The Times’ editorial board), but Republicans will be on solid ground insisting that they’re just responding to a deliberate provocation by the deporter in chief.

Then what happens if and when the government shuts down? In 2013, Obama could argue that Republicans contorted the legislative process to undermine a duly enacted law. This time, Republicans will be using their leverage to resist a controversial assertion of executive power.

Supporters of the president’s moves are likely to defend them as a legal use of administrative discretion. But to the average person, giving more people the chance to obtain what amounts to temporary visas and work permits looks an awful lot like unilaterally increasing the federal immigration limits.

Utlimately, Rep. Dent is right about Congress having to fund the government. It’s a core responsibility of governing, and the public reacts badly when elected representatives don’t fulfill it.

In addition, alienating Latino voters hasn’t worked well for Republicans in the last two presidential election cycles, when turnout among nonwhite voters surged. Considering that Latinos make up a steadily growing portion of the electorate, some top Republican consultants have argued that the party can’t afford to continue being the voice of “no” on immigration reform if it ever wants to reclaim the White House. The risk for congressional Republicans, then, is that they could doom themselves to four more years of a Democrat in the White House if they mishandle the coming confrontation with Obama.

Yet there’s one more lesson from the 2013 shutdown that Republicans should find reassuring: The electorate has a short memory. As much as the public soured on Republicans after the “defund Obamacare” fiasco, the ill will seemed to have evaporated by election day. Of course, having a disastrous rollout of the Obamacare exchange shifted the public’s focus and made Congress seem competent by comparison.

The GOP can’t rely on that happening every year. Or can it?

Follow Healey’s intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey