During the Reagan years, the federal government shut down eight times. It would be inaccurate to say that the Democrats, who then controlled Congress, shut down the government, because it takes two to play shutdown chicken.
Certainly, though, the legendary Democratic speaker of the House, Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, had no qualms about using the House's constitutional authority over appropriations to maximum effect. His penchant for brinkmanship, when his priorities conflicted with those of the executive branch, even saddled his fellow Democrat, Jimmy Carter, with several government shutdowns.
O'Neill was not called a traitor, an insurrectionist, an extortionist or a hostage-taking terrorist. Under the Constitution's Origination Clause (Article I, section 7, clause 1), the House of Representatives has the sole "power of the purse," the only authority to originate spending bills. In No. 58 of the Federalist Papers, James Madison explained the purpose of reserving the spending power for the house designed to be most accountable to the people:
"The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse…"
Reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of the House attempting to withhold funding for the so-called Affordable Care Act. But informed people simply cannot with honesty say it is unconstitutional, or unprecedented or illegitimate.
The House may be playing hardball, but playing hardball within constitutional rules is fair game. The ACA itself, after all, was fast-balled through Congress by an atypical use of the reconciliation procedure, after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Hate the game, not the player.
In previous government shutdowns, the president and Congress understood that the impasse could only be resolved by compromise. They negotiated, they each gave up something and the country moved on.
Like its predecessors, the current House has offered to compromise. What is different this time is that the current president simply refuses to negotiate. That's not something you do, his chief communications adviser blithely communicated, "with people with a bomb strapped to their chest."
What is different this time, is that the executive branch is determined to make this as painful to the public as possible.
Our political climate is descending, even at the highest echelons, to the level of an anonymous Internet comment box. This is not the change we are looking for.
THOMAS EASTMOND lives in Newport Beach.