The Rand Paul Shutdown: A Low Point in the Deficit Debate

The Rand Paul Shutdown: A Low Point in the Deficit Debate

Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The federal government shut down briefly for the second time in three weeks on Friday after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) temporarily blocked a Senate vote on a massive spending deal that would have kept agencies from running out of money.

The shutdown ended Friday morning after the Senate approved the budget deal 71-28 shortly before 2 a.m. and the House followed suit several hours later with a narrow 240-186 vote. House Democrats provided the margin, with 73 backing the bill, more than offsetting 67 Republicans who voted against it. President Trump signed the bill before 9 a.m. to formally end the shutdown.

The disruption to government operations was minimal. The absurdity and dysfunction it symbolized were monumental.

The government may have reopened before most federal employees reported to work, but Congress had still failed, even if only for a short time, to perform one of its most basic responsibilities. And the cycle of perpetual brinksmanship on Capitol Hill allowed one senator to delay a critical vote past the deadline.

Paul’s theatrics left his fellow lawmakers grousing, especially given that it wasn’t going to change the outcome of the Senate budget vote, just delay it. "You haven't convinced 60 senators or 51 senators that your idea is good enough for them to support," Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) said. "Go to work, build a coalition, make a difference. You can make a point all you want. But points are forgotten. There's not a whole lot of history books about the great points of the American Senate."

Sen. John Thune called it “a colossal waste of everybody’s time.” Others on Capitol Hill called it the dumbest shutdown ever. “This is dumber than a screen door on a submarine,” one Senate GOP aide told Politico.

The Senate vote was supposed to be the easy part of passing the budget deal. Passage in the House was more in question because of opposition from conservative Republicans angry about the deficit spending and from Democrats who wanted immigration issues addressed as part of the deal. But that was before Paul, objecting to the hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit spending in the deal put forth by congressional leaders, decided to demand a vote on an amendment the keep existing spending caps in place.

Paul said he held up the vote to highlight out-of-control government spending and the hypocrisy of his fellow Republicans in accepting deficit spending now after decrying it for years. “The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” he said, according to The New York Times. “I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, ‘How come you were against President Obama’s deficits and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?’”

But Democrats accused Paul of displaying the same hypocrisy he was criticizing. “Rand Paul voted for a tax bill that blew a $1.5 trillion hole in the budget,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) tweeted. “Now he is shutting the government down for three hours because of the debt. The chance to demonstrate fiscal discipline was on the tax vote. Delaying a vote isn’t a profile in courage, it’s a cleanup.”

And an awfully messy one at that.

This article was updated at 10:50 a.m. on Friday, February 9.