DHS shutdown fight is just the latest from the Department of Government Theater

Move is dramatic but achieves little

WASHINGTON, D.C. - I hope I can get this piece about the looming shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security through the editing process without any of the big bosses seeing it, because I am about to break a rule.  I shouldn’t say it, but I think you can safely ignore the story until Friday night or Saturday morning.

Like all theatrical drama, there will be an ending to this one. I’d wait till its over and then read the reviews.

My best guess at this moment is that last minute gyrations will avoid a shutdown. 

If there is a shutdown, it will be brief. The main consequence of it will be that taxpayers and foreign governments will giggle at our Congress, a group that is beyond embarrassment anyway.

The word “shutdown” is actually a red herring.

If funding authority for DHS does expire because of gridlock, the doors at Homeland Security won’t be padlocked. Most DHS employees, some 200,000 people, will have to work because they are deemed essential. They just won’t be paid, which is a lovely way to treat border guards, Secret Service agents and Coast Guard officers. Stay classy, Washington.

The real issue here is immigration, not national security. A group of House Republicans, it seems actually believed that if they held DHS hostage, the president would release his immigration program. That, of course, was never, ever going to happen.

A larger group of House Republicans, however, thought they could enhance their anti-immigrant credentials by staging a play about holding DHS hostage. These folks have great sway over what House Speaker John Boehner does, though they have scant support among Senate Republicans.

Such stagecraft often adopts the format of hostage-taking and bargaining about shutting down an agency or the government. These dramas always end and the hostage takers never get what they want.

There have been 10 government shutdowns since 1980, when the current budget rules and accompanying legal opinions came into effect.

There have been two long shutdowns. Both were engineered by House Republicans, first in 1995, then in 2013.  Both were political disasters for the Republicans – and they generally diminished the dignity of Congress and the White House.

Still, the Shutdown Spectacle is a popular form for contemporary political drama.  When one party controls Congress and the other the White House, they happen. But the track record is clear: shutdown threats never achieve legislative success or political dividends.

Please hold your, applause.

[Also by Dick Meyer: What will America look like in 2060?]

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