It is fitting somehow that President Trump's announcement that he would be "proud" to shut down parts of the federal government in the hope of securing funds for a border wall came just as a federal judge in Texas ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. Years ago Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) argued that he had no choice but to force a shutdown after Barack Obama unsurprisingly refused to sign a budget that would have defunded his signature domestic policy.
For his efforts, Cruz was dismissed as a far-right crank, a poseur, a cheap grifter who raised millions of dollars with his stunt. He might well have been all of these things. But the logic of his argument — that Congress is well within its rights when it refuses to fund the president's pet projects — is sound enough. It is certainly convincing to Democratic leaders in Congress, who are saying exactly the same thing today. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are doubly lucky because they find themselves squaring off against a president who, unlike Obama, is happy to present himself as the intransigent party.
The idea that a president should ultimately defer to Congress on prudential questions about spending is the sort of thing that sounds like wisdom if you happen to side with the opposition. It is also the attitude that ensures that government shutdowns are going to become a regular feature of American politics. As long as Congress holds the power of the purse there will be disagreements with the White House over budgets. These disagreements are frequently intractable.
There is, of course, another possibility, one that would prevent shutdowns from ever taking place. We could simply invest the executive with the power to approve funding for federal agencies if Congress does not present him with a budget. Perhaps as I write this, the White House counsel is discovering that this very power already lurks somewhere in the dense verbal jungles of Article II of the Constitution. It would certainly be in keeping with the seemingly irreversible trends towards the concentration of power in the executive branch and the transformation of the American system into a kind of Westminister-lite arrangement. Would this be such a bad thing?
How you answer this will very likely depend upon your opinion of the president who happens to be in power. Under President Obama, liberals were intoxicated by the idea of his exercising the same unilateral authority in foreign and domestic policy that they feared in the hands of his predecessor. An attempt by Trump to co-opt the power of the purse as he has with everything from immigration to treaty-making would be met by accusations of demagogy. If, on the other hand, his successor were to restore DACA — itself an excellent and humane example of the necessary usurpation of congressional power by the executive — or cancel construction of a border wall by fiat, it would be cheered by all the usual suspects and decried in the shrillest terms as "unconstitutional" by everyone else.
This partisan insistence upon covering disagreements about moral questions under the mantle of proceduralism is one of the most pervasive in American life. In the meantime, we accept the tedium of government shutdowns not despite the uncertainty that they bring but because of their familiarity. Time and again they produce the hated compromises we would all otherwise refuse. And they do it without forcing any of us to admit that we were ever wrong.
I suppose that in the long history of civilization there have been more savage rituals at the heart of national identities than our semi-annual insistence upon not paying for things that 96 percent of us believe we should pay for until the very last minute — or later. But there cannot have been many stranger ones.