Checks and Balances: Who Leads in a Government Shutdown?

The Hill, January 15, 2019


Our forefathers in their wisdom established a system of checks and balances in our Constitution to limit power in any one branch of government. That system has worked effectively for more than 200 years to limit power, but it also led to periods of legislative gridlock. We are in one of those periods of total gridlock with the current partial shutdown of the federal government. Each of the parties has dug in.

The president let the shutdown happen and has made clear that he will not agree to reopen government without Congress approving funds for his border wall.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has made clear through its new speaker that it will not approve funds for a border wall but, once the government is opened up, would be willing to negotiate on a comprehensive border security proposal.

The Republican-controlled Senate, through its majority leader, has made it clear that it will do nothing without the president’s approval.

Efforts to negotiate some kind of compromise have gone nowhere. I doubt that our forefathers ever envisioned such a total breakdown of leadership in both the executive and legislative branches of government. Having established a democracy of, by and for the people, it would have been unimaginable that the elected leaders of the people would stand by helplessly while innocent men, women and children were being harmed by a government shutdown.

Surely, our Constitution, which has stood the test of time for more than 200 years, through wars and depressions and disasters and failed leadership, will not abandon us now. And it won’t, but only if leadership is willing to rise to the occasion and not be trapped by the narrow, selfish political pressures of the moment. Leaders cannot stand to the side and allow fate to control our future. If the president is not willing to compromise and find a solution, the Congress must.

In Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution, our forefathers made clear that if the president fails to lead the nation, the Congress has the power to do so. If the president vetoes legislation to reopen the government, the Congress has the power to “proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration, two thirds of that House shall pass the Bill, it shall be sent … to the other House … and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become Law.”

This nation is in a major crisis. The shutdown of the government, although partial, is impacting important agencies responsible for the security and safety of the country: Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, TSA, air traffic controllers, the Justice Department, the FBI and other enforcement agencies are being constrained. The economy, at a time when there are concerns about a recession, is being seriously impacted. And, of course, the most innocent victims of all — the 800,000 federal employees and their families — are being forced to live without their paychecks, facing the ultimate dilemma of having to choose between rent and food.

The point is that the United States of America, the greatest country on Earth, is deliberately being weakened, made more vulnerable to our adversaries, and placing our own citizens at risk when we should be protecting them. There simply is no justification — wall, war or politics — that justifies this shutdown. It must end.

We elect our leaders to govern, not to tolerate chaos. Even in political gridlock, our forefathers provided a path to govern if there is a willingness to lead. The Congress should vote to open the government, even if it means overriding a presidential veto. No president has the right to hold the country hostage to a campaign promise. He is entitled to a vote, up or down, on money for his wall — no more and no less. Whether he likes it or not, Congress will have the final word.

And, by the way, the president should also be reminded that the Constitution gave the people the power to vote and implement the ultimate check in our system: If those elected fail to lead, they can be thrown out of office. Welcome to democracy.

Leon Panetta, a Democratic congressman from California from 1977 to 1993, served as director of the CIA (2009-2011) and secretary of defense (2011-2013) during the Obama administration, and as director of the Office of Management and Budget (1993-1994) and White House chief of staff (1994-1997) during the Clinton administration. He is chairman of the Panetta Institute, which concentrates on government, politics and public policy studies at the University of California, Monterey Bay.