The partial government shutdown—which is really more of a temporary slowdown—continues. And like the Fast and Furious franchise, there appears to be no end in sight. Many Americans understandably believe such shutdowns—whether full or partial—are signs of dysfunction and partisanship. And the media has an active interest in perpetuating such a narrative to drive drama and ratings.
While there is a lot of disdain about the current funding lapse—which you can find by reading just about any other article about the shutdown— there is surprisingly one positive aspect of this mess. It places one of the fundamental functions of our government on center stage. When was the last time Congress had a genuine fight over funding priorities, let alone for the whole country to see? The norm has been to package up and ram through 2000 page bills with over $1 trillion in spending with no amendment or debate.
Whenever there’s a funding lapse, it means that Congress is arguing over its funding priorities, which is its primary responsibility as outlined in Article I of the United States Constitution. In this case, it’s an argument over about $5.7 billion in funding for a border barrier. That’s roughly 0.13 percent of total projected federal spending for FY2019.
The new Democrat-controlled House refuses to pass legislation providing funding for border security provisions after the outgoing Republican-controlled House did so last month. And the President—at least for now—is refusing to sign any appropriations bill that comes out of Congress that doesn’t provide funding to secure the border.
And as long as enough Republicans and Democrats stick to their absolute positions, the partial “shutdown” could go on indefinitely. Although not without some consequence—both political and practical.
And indeed, both sides appear to be digging in for the long haul while public opinion indicates more Americans are blaming the R’s more than the D’s. Though Republicans can take some solace that in 2013 they were blamed for the shutdown and proceeded to win nine seats in the Senate during the next election.
Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen, there are important lessons to be learned. Specifically, lessons that younger Americans and future leaders should remember.
Lesson One: Washington isn’t that important
The Founding Fathers, who set up our republic at the height of the Enlightenment era after fleeing an oppressive monarchy, thought that the central government must be restrained and limited in order to maximize our freedom and opportunity.
Today, Washington has more power than it should. They have dictated what our health insurance has to look like. They have regulated what kind of lightbulbs we have to use. They have set uniform standards for what qualifies as educational “success.” Everything in our society has started to bend toward the Potomac.
And yet, the partial “shutdown” shows that life still goes on even when a quarter of the federal government isn’t operating at full capacity. Despite the Department of the Interior being mostly shut down, parks are finding ways to remain open. Despite the Department of Agriculture being mostly shut down, food is still finding its way onto our tables. Despite the Department of Transportation being affected, roads are still being built, planes are still flying, and people are still commuting to and from work the same way they always have.
Yes—food stamp recipients could be affected. Although the Office of Management and Budget suggests those will continue to go out. And yes—the IRS is moving slower than it otherwise would on getting people their refunds.
Lesson Two: Advance your policy priorities while you’re in charge
For those who support the purpose of the partial government shutdown, the lesson to be learned is that congressional majorities shouldn’t wait until an inevitable transfer of power to attempt to enact those priorities.
Republicans failed to make the argument or even attempt to advance border security funding measures until after their walloping in November of last year.
Similarly, Democrats failed to make use of their congressional majority in 2009 and 2010 to pass legislation providing for amnesty (or a pathway to citizenship in D.C. parlance) for illegal immigrants. It was only after Republicans gained control of the House after the Tea Party wave in 2010 that Democrats returned to the issue.
Lesson Three: Be firm, but don’t be callous
Government workers are people, too. And over 800,000 of them are working without a paycheck or are furloughed at the moment. There’s a tendency—more common on the right—to dismiss the human impact that these shutdowns have on those employed by the federal government because their salaries are both generous and funded by taxpayers.
But the current debate, while appropriate and working as our system should, does negatively impact millions of people. And while that impact will inevitably only be temporary, it’s incumbent for both parties to recognize that the federal workforce shouldn’t be used as bartering chits in the midst of a funding dispute over policy priorities.
Comments that disparage those who are currently going without a paycheck are not only harmful to one’s cause, but also harmful for winning the hearts of minds of the public.
Leaders should express sympathy and compassion for those impacted while working hard to achieve one’s policy objectives in as expedient a manner as possible. Leaders should also limit the fallout of the funding lapse as much as possible and consider placing the consequences on the negotiators rather than the general public.
Lesson Four: Being principled is a good thing
While our system is built around compromise—particularly in the Senate—issues are rarely resolved when one side waters down its position before a debate even begins. The White House and congressional Republicans took the hard line that they want funding for a border barrier and will accept nothing less than appropriations for that purpose before the partial shutdown is resolved. Democrats have stated outright that they will not provide any funding.
These are the principled positions of both parties.
And because both sides took their principled positions, it’s extremely likely that by the end of this funding feud, both sides will walk away with something.
If this occurs, it may very well help ease the public polarization as people are able to latch on to something that their side accomplished.
And that would be a win-win for everyone.