When you're an American politician in the throes of a policy showdown, it doesn't hurt to consider WWRRD -- What Would Ronald Reagan Do? Not all of his actions, surely, would be palatable to progressives, but a few of them certainly could be re-appropriated to good effect. And that's just what President Obama should do if the Republicans force a government shutdown in their increasingly shrill attempt to derail the Affordable Care Act and dispose of or impose many of the other laws that, by normal legislative means, they have been unable to control.
This isn't just a matter of gamesmanship: Real people will be hurt immediately by the shutdown, including hundreds of thousands of public employees who suddenly will be furloughed, after years of low or no upward pay adjustments. The economic and personal wreckage from a prolonged shutdown will be worse this time than in past shutdowns. That's why the president needs to a.) show that he stands with the afflicted and b.) make Congress share the pain.
Therefore, if I were the president's policy advisor, here's what I'd advise. The day after a shutdown begins, address the nation in prime time and, in part, say this:
My fellow Americans. Our nation cannot afford this harmful government shutdown just as we are making measurable progress achieving economic stability. Anyone who says or votes otherwise must be regarded as insincere if not reckless. My position and that of many fellow Democratic lawmakers has been that it is wrong for Republicans to tie overriding action on the debt ceiling and continuing budget authorizations to their particular agenda on particular matters of law. They should, instead, de-couple these issues. We as elected representatives of the people can and must debate, deal and vote on matters of law and policy like the Affordable Care Act without threatening a national government shutdown or a national default. This shutdown is not only unnecessary; it's unacceptable. A simple, clean vote on whether to extend government operations is perfectly achievable; it's just that a cabal of single-minded legislators have refused to take such a vote.
This relatively small cabal of Republican congressmen in the House have forced us into shutdown because, on unrelated matters, they didn't get exactly what they want in exchange. Nor did Republican leadership dissuade them. My view and the view of many legislators, economists and others is that a prolonged shutdown will not only hurt the American economy but also the international economy. The risk of a prolonged shutdown is thus unacceptable. Under the Constitution, your president has no legal recourse to end this shutdown other than to surrender to the GOP's act of public policy hostage-taking. This course also is unacceptable, because it would set a terrible precedent going forward -- an anti-American precedent, where a tiny minority of legislators controlling one-half of the legislative branch could dictate public policy to the majority.
Therefore, as your president, I am today issuing an executive order instructing the Treasury Department to withhold pay checks for all members of Congress until this shutdown is resolved. Yes, it's true. Members of Congress still draw their pay while the shutdown continues. This is unfair to Americans in general and sends the wrong signal to those in Congress who think they can magnify their power by refusing to conduct the business of government in a collaborative, sensible manner.
Many members of Congress, including some in both major parties, have not supported votes that led to this shutdown. This executive order unfortunately makes them victims, too. I can only say I regret that, and that I will forgo my own salary while this crisis continues. I only hope that elected lawmakers who, like me, abhor this shutdown will understand the need for own temporary, individual sacrifices.
The fact is that it would not be appropriate for me to unilaterally pick and choose who in the employ of government should get paid and who should not. Authorizing spending is in fact, the responsibility of Congress.
But when Congress fails to reach consensus and when by their votes a minority of members recklessly keep both our government and our economy on the edge of serious breakdown, I believe the powers invested in the presidency do allow this executive order. This shutdown is nothing less than a matter of national security, because our security as a nation depends on a secure economy, and that in turn depends on functioning government.
No doubt lawmakers in the Republican Party and perhaps even some in my own party will object to this executive order as overreach. Some may even seek legal action against me in response. To that I say: If you feel the need, please proceed.
I am one constitutional scholar who will acknowledge that those who forced this shutdown may have valid points of law backing action against this executive order. But in the meanwhile, I say this to those in Congress who have chosen to play so carelessly with the lives of millions, or perhaps even billions, of innocent lives: While I am president, and while this impasse continues, you will not get paid. And I say to those lawmakers: Shout at me all you like, but be prepared to also explain to the American people why you are lifting heaven and earth to restore your own paychecks while refusing to restore the paychecks and programs upon which millions of innocent Americans depend.
Thank you, and God bless the United States of America.