National Security, the Shutdown, and Moral Seriousness

Imagine if the Democrats in 2007, having just regained control of the Congress, had decided to go to the mat against the Bush tax cuts. Imagine that they voted repeatedly to repeal them. They tried to delay implementation. They linked repeal to debt ceiling legislation. And while most of them knew better than to shut down the government over marginal tax rates, for a group critical to Nancy Pelosi’s majority, repeal had become a matter of religion. While Pelosi, for her part, didn’t favor this gambit, neither was she willing to rely on Republican votes. So with troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the surge under way, and who knows what Al Qaeda plots ongoing in the background, imagine that Congress refused to send to President Bush legislation to fund the federal government without language repealing the tax cuts. And when Bush refused to negotiate under these circumstances, imagine that the government had shut down.

Had Pelosi and company done such a thing, they would have had their patriotism and their commitment to this country’s national security questioned. There are certain things a morally serious person just doesn’t hold hostage to domestic political disputes, and chief among them is the national security interest of the United States.

What the Republicans in the House of Representatives are doing right now is terribly close to the counter-factual scenario I have just described, indistinguishably close. DNI James Clapper and General Keith Alexander both testified this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the devastating effects the shutdown is having on the intelligence community. “As each day goes by, the impact and the jeopardy to the safety and security of this country will increase,” Clapper said. With more than 70 percent of civilian officials furloughed, this does not seem like an overstatement.

Reasonable people can disagree about the authorities the NSA should have, when it’s appropriate for the CIA to use drone strikes, and how assertive U.S. foreign policy and intelligence should be. It’s hard, however, to argue—and nobody really does argue—that it’s in the national security interests of the country to simply depopulate the agencies devoted to ensuring the nation’s security. While this weekend’s decision to interpret a recent congressional enactment to end furloughs for most civilian Pentagon employees should help, the problem goes well beyond the Pentagon—and the new policy will apparently not even completely solve the problem there.

We live in a world where the people who are stuck at home right now, insulted and unpaid by their legislature, have crucial roles to play in the day-to-day fabric of our security, roles we forgo at no small peril. They are the analysts who connect the dots. They are the people who take the calls from the foreign intelligence services on which we depend. They are those invisible cogs without which the machines of national security and homeland security do not function.

To put the matter simply, the current Republican insistence on attaching conditions to a continuing resolution to keep government open is nothing more or less than the elevation of domestic disputes over Obamacare and fiscal matters above the security of the country as a whole and above the physical safety of its population. It is as reckless as it would have been for Democrats to shut down the government over the Bush tax cuts. And it is no less apt to raise questions about the seriousness of those who would do it.

And what of a President who—as Bush surely would have done in my hypothetical and as Obama is currently doing—stands firm and refuses to negotiate away a signature domestic initiative in the face of congressional insistence on linking its denuding to the essential security of the nation? Should we not also question such a president’s seriousness for failing to capitulate, given the stakes? Is this not a case in which it takes two to tango?

I am, generally speaking, a pox-on-both-houses kind of guy, but I have trouble seeing it that way this time. It was the House Republicans, after all, who attached these conditions to the continuing resolution, thus putting the President in an impossible situation—one in which he either lets the government shut down or both gives up a signature domestic initiative and, along the way, makes clear the presidency’s vulnerability to the most grotesque types of brinksmanship and extortion. No president worth his salt would negotiate under these circumstances—and the responsibility for the situation is thus not even between the parties. One side, and only one, created this crisis.

Writing a week ago, John said of the Tea Party Republicans:

  these members of Congress—who know or should know more about the national security threats to the United States than their constituents—have a responsibility to educate their constituents to the risks to the American people of shutting down the government during a time of war. The American people may not like Obamacare but they still expect the federal government to keep them safe.

  . . .

  [I]f there were another attack against the United States or its facilities around the world (such as an Embassy), Tea Party Republicans and the American people would not be able to blame the Executive branch—and call for Benghazi-like investigations—for failing to keep the country safe. Members of Congress who had forced a government shutdown would themselves be blamed.

I would take John’s a point a step further: They should not be blamed only if disaster happens and not merely either for an error of judgment or policy. They deserve blame for knowingly risking other people’s lives and safety in a fashion against which the most basic prudence counsels loudly—and they deserve that blame whether or not something terrible actually happens.

This piece was first published on Lawfare Blog.