On Friday morning, President Trump signed a new spending deal and ended a brief overnight government shutdown.
Republicans groused, but not about the bipartisan spending bill they had just approved, which eradicates the fiscal restraint created by the Tea Party Congress in 2011. Rather, they were grousing about the fact that the bill could have passed without controversy on Thursday afternoon, allowing them to get a good night's sleep, but for the meddlesome junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul.
Paul took to the Senate floor on Thursday and formally objected to holding the vote. This delayed the process for nine hours and forced the final tally to take place in the wee hours of the morning.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called Paul’s actions “grossly irresponsible," and asked, "Why reward bad behavior?" Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., accused him of flagrant self-promotion.
But remember that movie where Jimmy Stewart delays congressional proceedings when everyone around him resents his time wasting? He's the hero, not the villain.
So, perhaps Cornyn, Graham, and others should search their own motives, and reconsider their condemnation. Paul’s objection was never going to stop the bill from passing. His reason for objecting, aside from the bill’s irresponsibly increased spending, was that he hadn’t even been allowed to offer an amendment to restore the budget caps that Republicans and Democrats were voting to abolish. He wanted, at the very least, to force everyone to go on the record and be accountable for what they were doing.
As Paul pointed out, there had been plenty of time for a vote on his amendment, and as many as 39 others, if anyone had been willing. But many senators, especially Republicans, didn’t want such a vote because it put them on the spot. And the Senate majority leader, Paul’s Kentucky colleague, Mitch McConnell, accommodated them.
That’s why Paul rebelled.
“The reason I'm here tonight is to put people on the spot," Paul said. "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?’”
Some people make the case against futile gestures. But sometimes, it’s worth deliberately fighting a losing battle, especially when no one gets hurt who doesn’t deserve it.
Aside from the irritation of politicians and many journalists about being kept up late, and aside from the inconvenience of bringing a government shutdown to the brink of business hours Friday morning, what harm did Paul do? Not much that we can think of.
By contrast, those senators who voted to reinstate trillion-dollar deficits did much harm to their country and to the Senate. In the interest of saving themselves from potentially angry voters, they demanded and received a process that flouted regular order and insulated them from the clear accountability their constituents deserve.
In supporting the deal that just went through, they acted to satiate government contractors who have been demanding for years that the borrowed money spigot be reopened. They voted to fulfill Pentagon officials’ desire to go back to their old unaccountable ways and flout the legal requirement that their books be audited.
Some, Democrats especially, also voted to augment funding for wasteful domestic programs that ought to be abolished.
In their own version of the story of President Barack Obama’s rise to power, conservatives usually begin with the excesses of the George W. Bush administration, and especially the way Republicans in his era colluded to spend and spend without concern for the growing federal debt.
Sen. Paul has given fair notice to Republicans that they risk repeating history and losing power again. That is a service, even if it is also an irritant. It's time for Republicans to remember that conservatism includes fiscal responsibility.