What happens when the government shuts down?
The longest-lasting partial federal government shutdown in U.S. history affords President Trump the opportunity to kill off an over-the-hill political spectacle, drain some of the swamp and maybe — just maybe — build the wall.
Trump is a disruptor and a breaker of political norms that need to be broken. Among the more irritating contemporary norms is the State of the Union address delivered to a joint session of Congress every January and televised nationwide during prime time.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, on Wednesday asked the president to reschedule this year’s address until the shutdown is over, citing security concerns. Some outlets reported Pelosi’s suggestion as an “un-invitation.” It wasn’t. But Pelosi did dangle a tantalizing prospect: “Consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress” on Jan. 29.
Yes! Perfect! Definitely do that! The Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Notice nowhere does it say the president needs to deliver that information in person. For more than a century, in fact, presidents from Thomas Jefferson onward sent a written report to Congress that a clerk would read into the record.
Then in 1913, Woodrow Wilson — the godfather of the modern cult of the presidency — decided he should give the address to Congress personally. Harry S. Truman did Wilson one better in 1947, delivering the address on the exciting new medium of TV. Lyndon Johnson topped Truman by giving the speech in the evening.
And ever since, the State of the Union has evolved into a big, dumb spectacle, with members of Congress jockeying for plum seating on the aisle to be photographed with the president, shout-outs to special guests in the gallery, followed by hours of bloviation from talking heads.
Who needs it? Trump may be a showman, but the State of the Union is one of the lamest shows around. The president should tweet out his speech, 240 characters at a time.
In the meantime, the president could do the country a favor and cull the federal workforce of nonessential bureaucrats.
Everyone knows the president cannot fire career government employees willy-nilly. Our civil service laws are ironclad. But a fairly obscure rule would allow the administration to lay off certain workers if they’ve been furloughed for at least 30 days. It’s called a “reduction in force” and it’s perfectly legal as long as the White House adheres to certain criteria, accounting for an employee’s tenure, total federal and military service, and work performance.
Guess what? About 350,000 nonessential federal employees have been on furlough since December 22. Those 30 days are coming up soon.
What purpose would a reduction in force serve? Simply put, it would knee-cap the “Resistance” that is working to undermine a duly-elected presidency from within.
The right-leaning Daily Caller offered some insight on Monday with an article by an anonymous senior Trump administration official.
“Most of my career colleagues actively work against the president’s agenda,” the official wrote. “This means I typically spend about 15 percent of my time on the president’s agenda and 85 percent of my time trying to stop sabotage, and we have no power to get rid of them. Until the shutdown.”
“President Trump can end this abuse,” the official continued. “Senior officials can re-prioritize during an extended shutdown, focus on valuable results and weed out the saboteurs. We do not want most employees to return, because we are working better without them.”
The laid-off workers would scream, they would cry, they would certainly sue. And they might even prevail in the lower courts. But the Supreme Court would have the last word. How do you suppose that will go?
The simple fact remains that Trump is president. He runs the executive branch. He gets to make policy. He can be checked by Congress and the courts, but he has certain constitutional prerogatives — prerogatives that his predecessors exercised without issue — that don’t go away just because his name is “Trump.”
He also gets to follow through on the promises on which he campaigned.
By far the biggest promise was to build a wall along the southern U.S. border to prevent illegal trafficking in drugs and human beings. The wall is not (contrary to UC Berkeley emeritus cognitive scientist George Lakoff) about “hate.” It’s about national sovereignty, which is about taking care of Americans first.
A heretical notion, I know, and an old-fashioned one at that. But it’s a fight worth having — and well worth the inconvenience and discomfort of a long-lasting government shutdown if the president delivers.
Ben Boychuk is managing editor of American Greatness (). Reach him at or on Twitter @benboychuk.