Consequences for the left if they keep shutting government down over DACA

Consequences for the left if they keep shutting government down over DACA
© Greg Nash

The left threatens to over-reach again and reignite the Senate’s nuclear option. This time the catalysts could be DACA and the debt limit; the result: A filibuster-engendered default on federal securities. Should this materialize, it sets the stage for curtailing legislative filibusters for the first time.

If extending the nuclear option to legislation seems unthinkable, consider the nuclear option itself was just five years ago. Less than five years later, it has now been exercised twice — once by each party.

In 2013, Democrats changed Senate rules by parliamentary maneuver, enabling a simple majority to circumvent the need for sixty votes to stop debate — filibuster — of non-Supreme Court nominations. Just last year, Republicans extended this, by the same procedure, to Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination. Now all presidential nominations are effectively filibuster-free. 


The nuclear option could shortly move into the realm of general legislation, because much of the earlier elements again exist — most notably, an adamant left desirous of provoking a fight.


The left seriously erred in demanding Democrats wage all-out war over Gorsuch last year. Eminently qualified and effectively status quo (he maintained the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative majority), the left’s filibuster created a huge conservative opportunity. Opposing a consensus pick, the left effectively made the argument for triggering the nuclear option. With filibuster option removed, they also made it possible to confirm a less consensus future conservative.

Today the left appears no less insistent over DACA. When DACA was not included in the House’s temporary government funding measure, a Senate filibuster ensued. The result: A three-day government shutdown.

While the eventual compromise of a broader immigration debate allowed government’s reopening, left activists were livid at Democrats’ acquiescence. Assuming a broader solution is not reached before current government funding expires — and the administration’s immigration offer has already been rejected — expect a February reprise. 

DACA has become the left’s demand of Republicans and Democrats alike. And while they currently pursue it over government funding — the battlefield now available — a government shutdown did not provide sufficient leverage before. It may well not again. 

The looming debt limit deadline (the Congressional Budget Office puts it at “the first half of March”) would provide far more. Government shutdowns are relatively “irregular regularities.” Infrequent enough to still garner press attention, most of the country hardly knows. Blocking federal government ability to borrow is a threat of vastly different magnitude.

The federal government has never been unable to borrow and service its debt. In common parlance, this amounts to default. The results would race through global credit markets, creating havoc and uncertainty and leaving higher borrowing costs in their wake.

If the left wants a real hostage for DACA, this is it. And all indications are that the left is spoiling for such a fight.

Consequences would again be crucial when considering the nuclear option. When first exercised in 2013, the Senate’s “advice and consent” constitutional authority was among the justifications. Preventing government default ranks in that sphere. Such concerns would be vital to get senators to trigger the momentous nuclear option — particularly regarding legislation.

The debt limit is no ordinary legislation. Arguably it is among Congress’ most important, short of declaring war. If there is a foreseeable legislative case for the nuclear option, this is it.

As with 2013’s nominations, where the precedent would stop is unclear. It took just four years to encompass all nominations. Such an option could soon move through other government financing legislation. Anyone familiar with federal funding knows virtually all federal policy can be affected through it.

The left’s overreach here could have far more serious consequences than even those of the Supreme Court. This is particularly true because of the geographic concentration of political power in America. Conservatives’ stronghold is spread more broadly across the states than the left’s. Even though Trump did not win the popular vote, he carried 30 states. Thirty states equal 60 U.S. senators.

Certainly neither conservatives nor Republicans may hold all those 60 seats simultaneously, but they present a greater opportunity for Senate majorities than the left has. The ability therefore to protect their ability to uphold the filibuster should be paramount to the left — and particularly to Democrats — in the long run.

However the long-view does not appear to be the view the left is taking. Whether last year’s fight over Gorsuch or this year’s three-day government shutdown — and the intensified clamor for a more forceful push on DACA — the left’s ken has been decidedly short. If the left remains insistent in it when the debt limit deadline arrives, this short-term view could have decidedly long-term implications — for liberals and Democrats alike.

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.