Cecelia Mason Published

What does the Robert C. Byrd Center director think of government shutdown?


As the wrangling between the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans over whether to fund the budget and whether to tie changes in the Affordable Care Act to that funding continues, the Director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University, Ray Smock, is appalled at the way Congress is handling the appropriations process.

Smock oversees the library that houses the late Senator Byrd’s papers and Smock can’t help but see this government shutdown through the eyes of Byrd, who served on the appropriations committee, which is charged with funding the federal government. Smock said Byrd was not happy the last time there was a major government shutdown, in 1995 and 1996.

“In fact one of the things he wrote in ’95 was ‘in all my years of public service I have never before witnessed such a politically motivated and potentially disastrous intransigence as that which characterizes the current majority in Congress,” Smock said.

Byrd was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee during that shutdown, which occurred because then House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton disagreed over the extent government funding should be cut. Smock said there is one major difference that makes this shutdown worse.

“Back then about half the appropriations bills had already been passed and so it was a partial shutdown,” he said. “And this time around, and the reporters don’t seem to be focusing on this very much, no appropriations bill has been passed and so the government does not have funds to operate anything except those parts that have been declared to be essential.”

Some Republicans in congress blame President Obama for the shutdown, saying he refuses to negotiate. But Smock said the Constitution does not assign the duty of funding the government to the president. He said the president’s job is to put a budget proposal together and submit it to congress.

“Congress then is supposed to go through a process of breaking that budget up into 13 major appropriations bills, holding hearings, having debates and each of those appropriations bills eventually comes to the floor of the house and senate and they’re passed,” Smock said.

“And they’re all supposed to be passed by October first of every year” he said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

Smock said the president’s budget is always considered dead on arrival when it gets to congress.

“And congress has the power of the purse; the president can’t spend a dime unless congress passes it first,” he said.

Over the past week the U.S. House and Senate have sent continuing resolutions to fund the government back and forth. The house bills have included amendments to cut money from the Affordable Care Act, delay its implementation or change provisions in the bill. The senate has stripped these amendments from sent the bills back to the house.

Smock said passing the bill back and forth is the result of house members’ refusal earlier this year to agree to a conference committee to work out the difference between the two houses. From a constitutional perspective, Smock doesn’t believe amendments changing Obamacare belong in an appropriations bill.

“Which was a totally ridiculous effort, the law has already been passed, already been upheld by the courts, how could it possibly have anything to do with a continuing resolution which is an appropriations bill to fund the government,” he said. “In fact the rules of the house and senate say there should not be extraneous matters that are not related to the actual budget that are on these bills.”

Smock said there have been times in the past when members have attached unrelated amendments to an appropriations bill.  

“But I’ve never seen in the history of the country anybody try to shut down the government because they didn’t like an existing law that was already funded and was already on the books,” he said.

And Smock said it’s highly unusual for one senator to have so much influence over what goes on in the house.

“Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the senate is dictating to the house, this is unprecedented too, the idea too that someone in the senate would be riding rough shod over the speaker of the house who is the elected leader of his party in the house and a first term senator is calling the shots in the House of Representatives,” Smock said.

And Smock takes issue with members who are unwilling to compromise.

“Compromise is the art of politics; compromise is the essential feature of any government of any political system,” he said.

Smock emphasized that as a long-time public servant who worked on Capitol Hill as Historian for the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995, he’s approached his job in a nonpartisan manner.

“But my personal views on this are that there’s no question about who is at fault and it is the substantial number of Republicans in the House, most of who have identified themselves as Tea Party members, and that group has managed to stifle and hog tie the rest of the Republicans in the House, including the speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio),” Smock said.

While constituents in the districts represented by these members might very well hate the government, President Obama and the Affordable care Act enough to want the government shut down and these representatives may believe that voters will blame the President for the shutdown Smock believes that won’t happen. He said history may prove him wrong, but he doesn’t believe the President will bear most of the blame.

While much attention is being paid to this week’s government shutdown and the arguments in congress over who is responsible, Smock said a much more serious battle looms on the horizon because house members who insist on tying changes to the Affordable Care Act to funding the government have threatened to do the same thing when the debt ceiling has to be raised in a couple of weeks.

“That’s unprecedented, never has happened in history.  Alexander Hamilton would be turning in his grave,” Smock said. “He was the great first treasury secretary. He’s the one who said that if this country’s going to be a great country it’s got to have full faith and credit, it’s got to be able to borrow money.”

Smock said congress has an obligation to increase the debt ceiling in order to pay bills the government has already accrued and failure to do so could damage the country’s credit and the economy.