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A Former House Historian Speaks About the Unprecedented New Congress—and the Government Shutdown

No one has ever shut down the government before over a single issue. Plus: What's special about this incoming class of congresspeople.
Members of Congress take the oath during the opening session of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 3rd, 2019.

Members of Congress take the oath during the opening session of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 3rd, 2019.

Over the past few days, America has seen several important milestones: The country has sworn in its most diverse freshman class of congresspeople, and has been gripped by one of the longest partial government shutdowns in recent history.

To understand how this moment compares to past halts in government funding—and what it all means for politics today—Pacific Standard spoke with Raymond Smock, a former historian for the House of Representatives and the recently retired director of the Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education.


President Donald Trump has alternately pinned the shutdown on Democratic politicians and himself. Earlier today, he said he was willing to keep federal agencies unfunded for years. Is it common for presidents to use such enthusiastic language when talking about shutdowns?

This is completely unprecedented for any president to shut down the government for a specific political issue that is a pet project of his.

Why then did previous shutdowns happen, if not for specific issues?

Some of them have been technical and just simply because they didn't get a bill done in time. They only lasted a few hours or a few days and everybody understood that it would be fixed. The last major time that there was a large shutdown was the fight between [then-Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich and [President] Bill Clinton.

These shutdowns, I think, all of them are illegal. All of them are irresponsible. The job of the government is to keep the government running, but these things have become extreme political footballs, in recent times, because we have extreme partisanship and the complete inability to compromise.

Would you say this shutdown has been especially long because politicians have stopped seeing it as their job to compromise, but instead to hold their party lines?

You have to remember that this shutdown started with the government in the complete control of the Republican Party. So to suggest that this shutdown began because of some failure between the parties is to miss the point. This is a president acting as a dictator because of a specific issue. He is not acting like a member of a co-equal branch of government. The Congress and the president are co-equal and the Congress has the power of the purse and I don't think our president understands that basic constitutional concept.

Raymond W. Smock.

Raymond Smock.

Apparently Trump also said he had considered using emergency presidential powers to bypass Congress to build the border wall. Can he really do that?

If he decides, within his presidential power, to try to take funds that are in other budgets and move them, under the name of national security, into fence-building on the border, that, to me, would be a violation of a number of laws. The whole point of the appropriations bill is that when Congress passes it, this is where the money is supposed to go. An appropriations bill is a law.

The president has strong powers to declare national emergencies, or even to declare martial law, but those things cannot be done lightly. If he does this without the support of the Pentagon, without a rationale, it can only be seen as him acting in a dictatorial manner. Polls show that most Americans do not see the Mexican border as the No. 1 issue. How far out can the president go, by himself, before the country slaps him down? He may be willing to test that, but I think it would be a terrible mistake.

To shift gears to the other bit of history happening on the Hill: What do you think of the new class in the House of Representatives?

For years, when I was historian of the House [from 1983 to 1995], I was on the floor on those opening days. They're always great fun. There's a festive atmosphere. Of course, the diversity of this class is fantastic. It's starting to represent the United States, at last, a little bit better.

I thought the day went beautifully. I thought both sides played their role. I thought Kevin McCarthy was gracious in his speech, in turning over the gavel to Nancy [Pelosi].

Mostly what I liked was the fact that the legislative branch of the government now has a real, solid way to constitutionally check the president. He has not been checked by his own party. The power to investigate is one of the most important and fundamental powers that Congress has. During the GOP Congress, the investigations that went on were incomplete. You're going to see much more open investigations.

This is completely different from the Mueller investigation. The president has the power to fire the deputy attorney general, who's in charge of some of this, [Rod] Rosenstein. He has the power to fire [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller. The deputy attorney general has the power to see to it that the Mueller report, once it's available, is not released to the public. So they can do a lot of covering up. They cannot stop the House of Representatives from [its] investigations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.