- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2018

For most presidents, a government shutdown is a noun, an event and a signal of failure — something lawmakers fall into out of malfeasance. For President Trump, it’s a verb, a tactic, something to order up if he doesn’t get his way.

He envisions a “good shutdown,” and since nearly his first days in office has been cheerleading for the possibility, though he has yet to get his way.

That could change over the next two weeks as negotiations stall on how to fund key agencies that, absent action, will run out of money Dec. 21.

“This would be a very good time to do a shutdown,” the president told reporters last month, setting the scene for the battle.

He told Politico that he would “totally be willing” to send the government into a shutdown, and said he thinks the fight is a “total winner.”

The White House declined multiple requests to go on the record defending the president.

Instead, a senior official would say only that Mr. Trump sees shutdowns the same way as did his predecessors in the Oval Office, but he feels Democrats unwilling to deal with him have forced his hand.

On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders also say the president is a reluctant shutdown artist.

“This is not something the president wants to do,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, told Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” program.

But that explanation doesn’t square with Mr. Trump’s own words. Beginning just months after his inauguration, he talked about needing “a good shutdown” to fix the “mess.”

He first hinted at a shutdown in the days after he signed a 2017 spending bill, then quickly had second thoughts as he began to take arrows from conservatives who said he allowed too much spending to be added.

He has continued to cheerlead for a shutdown in the months since. He seemed eager over this past summer, with tweets saying he would “be willing to ‘shut down’ government” and told reporters he was “willing to do anything.”

He stifled those promises after chiding by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, who said it would hurt their re-election chances. But after his party was clobbered in the House, he has returned to the topic with a vengeance.

“We’re in negotiation. We don’t get border security, possible shutdown,” the president said a week before the last shutdown deadline on Friday.

He averted that crisis by signing a two-week extension of government funding to move the fight out of the week set aside to honor the late President George H.W. Bush — pushing the deadline to Dec. 21.

But his troops in Congress are wary of his willingness to flirt with a shutdown.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who was in the House for the 1990s shutdowns, said the lesson he learned is that shutdowns don’t work.

“I mean, literally, we ended up paying all of the back pay, and think of the inefficiency in government the taxpayers had to pay, and it just wasn’t effective,” said Mr. Portman, who later served as budget director for President George W. Bush, the only president in the past 40 years to avoid any shutdowns.

“I’ve become convinced it’s not a serious tactic. The party that shuts down, at least the public perceives shutting down, typically ends up being very interested in getting it reopened,” he said.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and now president of the American Action Forum, said it is rare for politicians to look forward to a shutdown, but one now might be particularly toothless.

Mr. Trump has signed five of the annual dozen spending bills, covering the Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Energy, and Veterans Affairs departments and congressional spending for 2019. All told, that is more than 70 percent of discretionary spending that will flow no matter what happens.

The seven remaining bills fund the State Department, NASA, the national parks, Homeland Security and other agencies. But even if funding lapses, essential government services such as border enforcement would continue, further defanging the threat of a shutdown.

“I don’t think there are any good shutdowns, but this seems like a really low-damage shutdown if it were to transpire. It also raises a question of whether it will be a good tactic,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

Perhaps the closest corollaries to Mr. Trump’s shutdown eagerness would be the 1995 and 2013 shutdowns, both orchestrated by conservative House Republicans intent on trying to force a Democratic president’s hand.

In each of those cases, the Republican-controlled houses of Congress approved legislation and the shutdown resulted because the chief executive objected to the Republican bills. The shutdowns were a result of the impasse.

“I think before the first government shutdown, which was in the mid-‘90s before I got here, there was a sense that somehow this was a positive learning experience. I think it has always turned out to be a negative learning experience, and I hope we don’t have to do it again,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican.

Two brief funding lapses have occurred on Mr. Trump’s watch, both of them earlier this year. Ironically, he was not responsible for either of them. The first was orchestrated by Democrats over their demand for legal status for illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” and the second by Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, who blocked a spending bill long enough to leave the government technically without funding for a few hours.

Democrats this time are giving their Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill a pass because the shutdown strategy is emanating entirely from the White House.

“He is adamant about having a partial shutdown. He keeps repeating over and over again that he wants a shutdown. And make no mistake about it, he is the only reason there would be a shutdown,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told reporters late last month.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, California Democrat, said Mr. Trump should be the least eager for a shutdown now, given that his party controls both chambers of Congress only until next month. “If the government is going to shut down when he has the House and the Senate, what’s going to happen when he no longer has the House? That is a scary harbinger for the future.”

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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