Here's the best thing about how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) shut down President Trump's State of the Union speech before Congress: For such a high-profile clash, the stakes were so incredibly low. Trump was going to give a speech on January 29. Now he'll still give the speech, but at a later date.
As I said: low stakes.
Nevertheless, this was an important moment. The president on Wednesday tried to bluster and bully his way into giving the speech before Congress, despite a clear signal from Pelosi that the event should be, at the very least, delayed until the partial government shutdown comes to an end. Pelosi didn't flinch, and Trump ended the day disinvited and defeated, sheepishly acknowledging the Speaker's prerogatives.
Trump underestimated Pelosi. He lost. And it didn't cost Democrats a thing. The biggest harm from shutting down the State of the Union is that Pelosi will have to endure a few more brickbats from Fox News.
The payoff, though, is sweet: The president looks silly for escalating a fight he couldn't finish. Better yet, Pelosi has reminded the American public — and Trump — that Congress is a co-equal branch of government, that there are limits to the president's power, and that the legislative branch is free to assert its own authority. That's the how the Constitution is designed to work.
Trump seems to forget this truth every now and then. Sometimes members of Congress forget it, too. Very often, members of the House and Senate simply defer to the president on vital matters — particularly on issues of war and foreign policy — where Congress' power over the budget, treaty approval, and the declaring of war entitles it to a bigger say.
Sometimes the deferral happens because legislators are feckless; a vote you don't take is a vote that won't haunt you in the next campaign. But it also happens because members of the legislative branch seem to put more energy into serving their party than governing. The result is that you get somebody like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has already passed legislation to end the shutdown, and done it by a veto-proof majority — but won't allow a new vote on the same legislation because Trump wouldn't like it.
McConnell was more protective of the Senate's authority when President Obama was in power, of course. Tradition says that a presidential appointment to the Supreme Court at least gets a committee hearing in the Senate, along with an up-or-down vote by the full Senate. McConnell didn't allow that when Obama appointed Merrick Garland to the court, and the nomination fell by the wayside.
That's the way it works sometimes: It often takes divided government for Congress to assert itself, even a little bit, to challenge and hold the president accountable. Republicans loved it when it worked for them, so it's a bit galling to hear them now complaining when Pelosi takes similar action. "He has a Constitutional duty to report on the state of the union," Vice President Mike Pence complained Wednesday.
True. But it's well-established that he needn't give that report as a speech before Congress — he could just submit a written report. Is there a tradition and precedent for the speech? Sure. But there's a tradition and precedent for simply keeping government open, too. President Trump doesn't give deference to tradition; he's not owed it, either. Given Trump's penchant for getting his own way by creating calamities, Pelosi and Democrats are right to make the president feel some personal pain for the ongoing shutdown. Reward his behavior this time, and he's likely to return to it again and again. That's no way to govern a country.
The stakes were low this time, but that's not true of the larger shutdown battle. Lines are getting longer at airports. Food is going uninspected. FBI agents say they can't do their jobs properly. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees find themselves in financial crisis, relying on community food banks and worrying about their mortgages. The economy, as well as the health and welfare of the people of the United States, are increasingly at risk.
The president isn't the kind of guy to recognize the limit of his own authority, even when the lines are clearly drawn. For the sake of our Constitution — and, perhaps, for finally resolving the shutdown — it is good that Pelosi is there to remind him.