This past weekend, President Trump signed a continuing resolution to reopen the federal government after the 35 day partial government shutdown. The shutdown ended not with the president’s wall, additional border security measures, or any identifiable policy victories for either side, but a three-week countdown until lawmakers are in the same position all over again.
There is understandable outrage on all sides. Supporters of President Trump’s wall proposal are outraged because they feel betrayed by the president’s deal, furloughed workers are outraged because they caught the brunt of the shutdown’s political theater, and members of Congress are outraged because they are now forced to act if another shutdown is to be averted in three weeks.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) best captured the moment, tweeting “800,000 federal employees went without pay for over a month, and at the end of it all, we failed to fix border security and are continuing crisis governance. This is insane.” Indeed it is, and the obsession of theatrics-driven politics is the foundation for such insanity.
I have written here before that both the House and Senate suffer from a preference for empty rhetoric over genuine legislative action, but the conduct by party leaders and President Trump in the latest shutdown have provided better examples of this than I ever could have come up with. The shutdown was characterized by a common effort among both sides to force the outcomes they wanted without having to acknowledge the concerns of their colleagues. It’s telling that after a month long fight focused solely on border security, the first item on the agenda for the 17 member bipartisan conference committee was to focus “on the meaning of a wall or a physical barrier.” Why wasn’t this conversation had in December?
On at least four separate occasions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked funding bills with an insistence that such votes would be “show votes” and fruitless because of an almost certain presidential veto should they pass. Senators, however, did not even take the opportunity to see if that would be the case, and President Trump’s recent actions seem to cast doubt on such a result was as certain as Sen. McConnell insisted.
But there is an even greater argument against such top-down politicking. While competing proposals in the Senate failed to pass, they gave the public important information: their elected officials’ priorities. That’s the beauty of actually voting on things. The American people get to see their elected officials give the only statement that matters. This inclusive process is far more effective than having two people in DC trade juvenile jabs amidst the longest shutdown in US history.
Lawmakers are now attempting to find a compromise on border security before the next shutdown deadline threatens to repeat the past month’s fiasco all over again. The clock is running, and the test is on for how willing both sides are to abandon works of political theater and seek common ground.
If lawmakers are capable of drawing any lessons from the longest government shutdown in history, it is that they are better served by the hard work of making the case for their beliefs and engaging with their opposition in order to forge durable agreements.
Congress has a new opportunity to end the careless brinkmanship which seems to be second nature in our politics. The countdown to the next funding deadline will see if they have reflected upon the dysfunction of the past month and find themselves recommitted to governing with a wider vision than the next election.