“Terrorism,” “Hostage-Taking,” and the Government Shutdown

Some Obama administration supporters claim that Republicans who refuse to pass a bill funding the federal government are acting like “terrorists” or “hostage takers.” To some extent, this is just your typical exaggerated political rhetoric, similar to that of Republicans who absurdly claim that Obama is a “socialist,” for example. But it also presents a fundamentally misleading understanding of the situation.

Terrorists and hostage-takers are evil because they threaten lives and property that do not belong to them. “Your money or your life” is a terroristic threat, because the person making the threat has no right to dispose of either your money or your life. But there isn’t any terrorism or hostage-taking if you say you won’t give me any of your money unless I do something you want me to do.

In the case of the government shutdown, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has no constitutional or other obligation to pass a funding bill that includes funding for Obamacare or any other particular government program. Part of the reason why the Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse is so they can decide which government programs are worthy of funding, and which are not. It is also worth noting that the Republicans are not the only side in this dispute who are willing to shut down the government if they don’t get what they want on health care policy. President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate could just as easily avoid a shutdown by accepting the House bill. In its latest version, it doesn’t even defund Obamacare completely, but merely delays implementation by a year and repeals the medical device tax, which is currently part of the law. This is not to say that Obama and the Senate Democrats are acting as “terrorists” or “hostage-takers” either. The Senate is not obliged to pass the House bill. If they do, Obama has every right to veto that bill if it gets to his desk. But there is considerable symmetry between the two sides’ positions.

Ultimately, how you evaluate the situation largely depends on your view of Obamacare. If you believe, as opponents of the law do, that important parts of Obamacare are unconstitutional, while most of the rest will probably cause more harm than good, then shutting down the government for a few days is a small price to pay for getting rid of this albatross; or even just for a substantially increased likelihood of getting rid of it. Conversely, if you believe – as most liberals and Democrats do – that Obamacare is a great advance in health care policy, a government shutdown is a small price to pay to protect it. Several previous shutdowns have resulted from confrontations over policy issues, and the republic has suffered little if any long-term damage from them.

There is, of course, also the question of whether the GOP’s tactics in the shutdown battle are likely to prove effective. Like many observers – including some prominent conservatives and libertarians – I have serious doubts about that. Of course, I also expected the GOP to be less successful in managing the fight over the sequester than they turned out to be. My political prognostications could misfire this time too. In any event, this is a question of political strategy rather than fundamental principle. The GOP’s approach to this fight could turn out to be foolish or self-defeating. But that doesn’t mean it amounts to “terrorism” or “hostage-taking.”

UPDATE: I should note that, in referring to the “latest version” of the GOP House bill, I meant the latest one that has actually passed the House. There have been other versions since that bill passed on Sunday, though none that has actually passed the House. By the time you read this post, it is possible that the version referred to above will have been superseded by a new one. But I doubt it will affect the main point I am making.