Forget the wall. Here's why Trump should shut down the government

  • President Trump is right to pressure Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to take a tougher negotiating stand with Democrats.
  • Rumors of disaster connected to government shutdowns and even debt downgrades don't hold up to the historical facts.
  • Trump was elected to smash establishment sacred cows just like this.
President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona.
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President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center as he takes the stage during a rally on August 22, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Thursday's round of tweets by President Trump perfectly encapsulate his frustrations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican establishment. Based on their failures to pass a health insurance bill or get much of anything done, President Trump simply believes they aren't good or effective negotiators.

And he's got a point.

Perhaps the best example is how McConnell and Ryan continue to yank their strongest negotiating weapons off the table: the debt ceiling and a government shutdown.

President Trump probably doesn't actually want the U.S. to default or the government to close, even though he threatened a shutdown fight to get the new border wall with Mexico built and paid for Tuesday night. He just wants the GOP leaders to get some compromises hammered out first. That's how this game is played in Washington, and it's actually worked well on the past.

The establishment, including many members of the Republican establishment, insist that government shutdowns are a political disaster that spells certain doom for those deemed responsible for them.

But history says that's dead wrong. The last government shutdown in late 2013 was resoundingly blamed on the Republicans who then controlled only the House of Representatives. And a year later those Republicans were resoundingly slapped with... a major midterm election victory and control of the Senate and the House for the first time in eight years. So much for "punishment."

That's not the only example of how shutdowns cause ephemeral outrage at best. In 1995, then-House Speaker and the new Republican Congress shutdown the government for 21 days in a budget spat with President Bill Clinton. Republicans took the blame for that one too in most polls but they not only retained their control of Congress in 1996, they held onto it until 2006, aside from a brief period in 2001-2 when Republican Jim Jeffords of Vermont became an independent and Democrats controlled the Senate until they lost the 2002 midterms.

That shutdown actually produced some more responsible government in the end, as President Clinton gave in partly to GOP demands and submitted a more balanced budget, according the Congressional Budget Office.

There were several government shutdowns during the Reagan years as well, many of which produced some productive compromises and none that damaged either party all that much in midterm or general elections in the 1980s. The holy hell predicted at the ballot box because of shutdowns just hasn't shown up in recent history and likely won't again if matters are resolved in a handful of days like most shutdowns.

That said, the right issues must be chosen to play this kind of still politically dangerous game of chicken. President Trump's claim in his tweet Thursday morning that a debt ceiling compromise was built into the Veteran's Administration bill deal signed this week was an example of the right kind of fight. Supporting our veterans, especially when it comes to giving them the right to appeal denial of benefits like the new law does, is popular across bipartisan lines across the country.

But shutting down the government or risking a downgrade over funding a new border wall would be dicier to say the least. Lucky for President Trump and the Republicans in Congress, there are several other issues worth forcing the Democrats to move on while using these more extreme threats. Cutting taxes for the middle class and simplifying the tax code for all would be two of them.

It may seem crazy that the Republicans need to use hardball negotiation tactics like threatening shutdowns when the GOP has control of both houses of Congress and the White House. But with only a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate, the Democrats have the power of the filibuster to hold up almost any bill. That's why President Trump has also been urging McConnell to eliminate the filibuster to strengthen his legislative hand. But that too is seen as some kind of sacrilege by the Washington establishment. Sure it works as a legislative tool for the minority party leaders, but polls over the years show Americans are not too wild about the filibuster either way.

Threatening default is trickier, but that's because default is incorrectly seen as the definite outcome of not extending the debt ceiling. It's simply not true that the U.S. will default on its bonds if the debt ceiling is not raised. When then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner mapped out what would happen without a debt ceiling raise in 2011, he showed how it would take another two months before the U.S. would actually be in danger of defaulting on its debt obligations. Geithner, who was arguing for a debt ceiling increase, showed how other less essential bills would be put off to make the more important payments first. It's hard to believe a more hawkish Treasury Secretary couldn't make those delays last longer.

But again, no government shutdown has lasted more than 21 days, so it's also hard to believe the more serious effects of a debt ceiling stalemate would last as long as two months or more. And those who say the possible debt downgrade the ratings agencies would slap the U.S. with makes raising the debt ceiling an imperative are forgetting that after the S&P downgraded the U.S. debt in 2011, the stock markets quickly recovered and finished the year basically right where they started. The prolonged stock rally that began in 2009 just briefly paused after the downgrade and then kept going.

That aside, no one should be rooting for a shutdown, a debt ceiling crisis, or credit downgrades. There are innocent victims in each scenario. But if congressional leaders refuse to wield their constitutional power of the purse, the results will be much worse. Those worse results being our $20 trillion debt and still-rising deficits, or the complicated and economically stifling tax code, or overall congressional gridlock on dozens of other issues.

We shouldn't be heartless and ignore the hardships shutdowns and deferred payments would cause many Americans. But with no shutdown ever lasting more than three weeks, and federal employees basically getting paid for the days they miss from work anyway, (as they were after the 2013 shutdown), are we really talking about disaster here?

Of course, if we keep just raising the debt ceiling almost automatically, and promising not to shut down the government for any reason, then the debt ceiling and government self-funding limits essentially mean nothing. And that's just how the spendthrifts and crony capitalists in both parties in Congress want it.

But the key lesson to remember is that President Trump was essentially the sledge hammer the voters in the general election sent to Washington to shake things up. And that was after GOP voters chose him to smash up the Republican establishment in the primaries.

McConnell and Ryan are still responding to that Trump sledgehammer with an insistence on the status quo. One look at the Trump rallies during the election and even nine months later should tell everyone that a big chunk of the nation's voters aren't going to wilt from a temporary shutdown or a debt downgrade. But for Ryan, McConnell and so many other establishment figures in Washington, it's as if they have simply refused to read the election results. Speaking of results, the latest polls show Mitch McConnell has just an 18 percent approval rating in his own home state. President Trump is at 60 percent approval in Kentucky.

And politicians who don't listen to election results and learn from polls like the new one in Kentucky are much more likely to end up on the endangered species list than those who threaten or even take the blame for a government shutdown or a debt downgrade or two.

Commentary by Jake Novak, senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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