As this week ushers in both 2019 and the start of the 116th Congress, it can hardly be ignored that parts of the U.S. federal government remain shut down. The failure to avert another government shutdown — the third in a year — provides fresh evidence of Congress’s inability to act.
First and foremost, the current shutdown has exposed the hollowness of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) cancellation of the Senate’s August 2018 recess. I wrote back in July that “full work weeks and a greater willingness to hold votes and open up debate” would be necessary to make the shortened recess valuable, but neither change came to pass. In fact, both the House and Senate adjourned moments after the shutdown deadline passed.
There is no shortage of excuses for either side. Partisans on the right insist congressional Democrats are guilty of “obstruction” over their unwillingness to negotiate with President Trump and his border wall, and partisans on the left have accused congressional Republicans and President Trump of negotiating in bad faith. With both sides making funding for the border wall their primary focus, neither Democrats or Republicans are forced to accept responsibility for the lack of progress in ending the shutdown.
When considering how events up to this point have unfolded, it becomes apparent that both sides rely on headline-grabbing rhetoric to hide their common inaction. Washington Post congressional reporter Paul Kane summarized just how bizarre the shutdown is, tweeting on the night of the deadline that “Little energy expended publicly by principals (staff working butts off behind scenes). Ryan, McConnell, Schumer, all gone before 8 pm. Pence put up smokescreen as if real talks were happening in his office off Senate floor. He left 10 mins ago.”
This begs the question of why both sides would be so willing to leave town. If Republicans are serious about the necessity of a wall, why would they leave DC instead of negotiating from a position of strength in the waning days of their majorities in both chambers of Congress? If Democrats, conversely, desire an end the shutdown, why would they leave DC instead of negotiating with Republicans for a speedy end to the shutdown?
The short answer: The same old political theatrics are at play at the expense of efficient and responsible governance.
It is an unfortunate reality, but both parties are so consumed by fighting rhetorical battles and gaining favorable public perception that they have abdicated any attempt at meaningful action that benefits the American people. Congress’s blame-shifting approach to government funding is in desperate need of reform. Since temperamental shifts seem out of the question in our tribal political moment, structural reforms will be needed to put a price on partisan theatrics.
One such proposal from Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Jon Tester (D-MT), as Pursuit’s Bryan Berky explains, ensures “all the agencies would be funded at current levels under a ‘continuing resolution’ except for deep and progressively escalating cuts to Congressional and White House budgets and members’ salaries.” The bipartisan proposal, introduced in the 115th Congress as the End Government Shutdowns Act, gives lawmakers a good place to start in the new year if they are serious about wishing to discourage future shutdowns.
While far from becoming a reality, the idea still carries glimmers of bipartisan support. In the days after the latest shutdown, members of Congress from across the political spectrum have either called for salary cuts during shutdowns in a manner similar to the Portman/Tester plan or requested their salaries be withheld until the shutdown ends. Both moves are to be commended, but real action will be needed if members want to show they are serious about curtailing reckless shutdown fights. Putting a price on the political games of party leaders would go a long way toward making government shutdowns less desirable.
The juvenile behavior of Republicans and Democrats at every stage of the latest government shutdown exposes the preference for both parties to play theatrical games and demands reform if it is to be changed. Until then, we should expect Congress’s inaction in the face of funding deadlines to continue. Prepare for the three shutdowns of 2018 to be the new normal in 2019.