The government shutdown over the weekend dominated the news, but the long-term implications are unclear. The soldiers are justifiably upset that they defend the country unpaid while politicians can’t seem to do their jobs. Democrats are blaming Republicans and calling them grinches, and Republicans blame Democrats for caring more about illegal immigrants than citizens. The government will likely reopen shortly, but there always seems to be a deadline for something.
Yet through all of this rancor and debate, it’s important to remember both recent and long-term history. I still remember vividly when the government shut down President Barack Obama and critics accused Republicans of hostage-taking. Given the Democrats are holding out for items like those for which they voted just a few years ago, this is a blatant and predictable double standard from Democrats and the media.
Yet there is more than that. From a historical standpoint, calling people hostages is not the pejorative that people think it is. In fact, with the proper historical perspective, Republicans should be proud of the term. Going back almost a thousand years in British history, Parliament, sometimes forcefully and almost to the point of violence, but always abruptly, resisted the power of the executive and protected the rights of the people.
This situation is somewhat surprising and different than the historical norm, in that the executive is shutting down the government to get spending that he wants. Republicans in the House have obliged (for now until the new congress takes over in January.) Donald Trump ran on a clear campaign of border security and immigration enforcement. He is willing to compromise to a certain degree and is well within his rights and historical precedent to force a confrontation with the legislature over the money for it. Democrats think they have a winning agenda and want to be intransigent. Now many Democrats seem unable to hold to their word and actually provide border security.
The worst crises have been formed by debates over taxation and spending policies. The barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. This became one of the oldest declarations of rights, placed limitations on the King’s power to tax, and was one of the earliest inspirations for the American constitution. Under Edward the III, Parliament, as it existed at the time, again refused to continue the ruinous taxation policies inspired by the Hundred Years War. And they resented the impossible burden it placed on the peasants. The King again had to agree to the reforms demanded by the people and their representatives.
Becoming a permanent body in the 17th century, Parliament sent The Petition of Rights to Charles I in response to his need for funding. This document specifically recalled British rights espoused in the Magna Carta. The King’s failure to follow this was called 11 years of tyranny and resulted in civil war. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688 another King was deposed and a Bill of Rights declared. In every instance, the people complained of a rapacious need for more money, and protested the ruler’s excessive demands on their time and bodies. By this point the colonists in America had taken note of the importance of the legislative body to check abuses of the executive. As a result of this hostage- taking by congress, they checked executive power, protected and even codified people’s rights, advanced their economic well-being, and provided a heritage and foundation for the constitution of the United Sates.
The founding fathers wisely drew from the lesson of history and placed the power of the purse in a branch separated from the executive, whom they feared would modify laws and tax the people in pursuit of his pet projects. James Madison wrote in the Federalist 58 that “this power of the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people.”
Whether the spending is for a medieval war against France or a war on poverty, if you can’t afford it or the country is in danger, the legislature needs to pass the necessary funding and laws to address those issues. The legislature is fully within their rights, especially when viewed from over 800 years of legislative hostage-taking, to insist upon restraint or their spending priorities to the point of shutting down the government. Unfortunately, most of those pushing for a shutdown this time are doing so for their pet political causes, not because of fiscal restraint. The Democrats might be proud of using the budget to take hostages, and there is a long history of nobly doing so, but instead of working for the citizens of the country they shut down the government and subjected its citizens to potential harm in favor of illegal aliens.