Politics

The Shutdown Should Have Never Happened

The crucial disagreement is about a deal lasting three days or three weeks. Seriously?

Avoidable.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In 1995-1996, the government shut down over whether to slash spending on a wide range of programs, as House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the new congressional majority Republicans wanted, or hold close to the status quo, as President Bill Clinton wanted.

In 2013, the government shut down over whether or not to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In 2018, the government has shut down over whether to extend temporary spending authority until mid-February, as the Republicans want, or to pass an identical bill extending that authority for three days, as the Democrats want.

U.S. Government Shutdown Extends Into Third Day

Seriously?

Republicans claim the blame should go to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats, who defeated by filibuster a bill that would have funded the government through Feb. 16. 1 That's not entirely wrong. Democrats are facing heavy pressure from constituency groups to take a stand for the Dreamers. A delay until mid-February would cause some real harm to some of them.

But the biggest issue among Democrats pushing for holding firm is about opportunity: If they don't act now, they will never act, and Republicans certainly won't protect the Dreamers unless they're forced to do so. It's not at all clear to me, however, why a very short Continuing Resolution would be any different on that score from a four-week CR, or the three-week CR scheduled for a vote on Monday. In other words, Democrats could have gone along with the Republican proposal and continued negotiating over immigration and other remaining issues with the government open, with little if any harm to their bargaining position.

That said, if we're thinking about blame in that way, Republicans would appear to deserve at least as much. After all, Democrats have been repeatedly offering one- or three-day CRs (in bills otherwise identical to what Republicans have been proposing), only to have Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or other Republicans object. 2  

As far as I'm aware, no Republican has even defended objecting to these short-term measures, which would allow the government to function normally while negotiations continue. Republicans have been blasting Democrats for opposing CHIP funding (for health insurance for children), which would be provided for six years in the Republican-proposed three- or four-week CRs. But that's entirely disingenuous. Republicans could have passed CHIP authorization as a stand-alone bill at any point in the past year, and could still pass it rapidly as a stand-alone bill if they wanted to. It is Republicans, not Democrats, who are holding CHIP hostage.

One can also argue that Republicans, as the party of the presidency and the majority in both chambers of Congress, have most of the responsibility for trying reach an agreement. 3  That hasn't happened. House Speaker Paul Ryan worked to cut a deal with the House Freedom Caucus, but didn't make any offer to Democrats that might have yielded a less party-line vote. McConnell put Ryan's bill on the Senate floor without any further attempt to secure support from Democrats. Indeed, one way to interpret what's happened is that congressional Republicans may have tried to manipulate a shutdown that they could blame on the Democrats. Whether that's true or not, they certainly don't appear to have tried hard to avoid this outcome.

And then there's the president. By all accounts, Trump's inability to negotiate successfully has been a problem. He doesn't appear to understand the issues at stake, and he doesn't follow through on his commitments. To step back a bit: As political scientist Matt Glassman has shown, same-party congressional leaders usually defer to the White House and let the president (or, more likely, his top staff) take the lead in these sorts of negotiations. That hasn't happened here, other than Trump occasionally intervening to blow up any progress that's been made (or, in other cases, to make progress only to then undermine what he previously had done). 

But there's another way to look at blame for shutdowns: The blame should go to whichever side is acting well beyond the leverage it has. That's a good way of getting beyond pointless fights about whether one side or the other was the last to act and therefore the one that shut down the government. However, it doesn't help much now, because the distance between the two sides right now is so small -- remember, as of Monday it will be over whether to temporarily fund everything for three days or three weeks.

The eventual fight over immigration and other matters is certainly a serious one, although perhaps not as weighty as Obamacare in 2013 or the host of issues that Gingrich was fighting for in 1995. But right now? It's over an 18-day or so gap in how long to temporarily fund the government. With no obvious reason to believe that either side will be put at a huge disadvantage going forward if either of those positions, or some compromise between them, is adopted. So I have no idea which side is in a position to force the other to cave, but mostly because they've collectively botched this so badly that the doors are closed over practically nothing.

If it goes on much longer and becomes the third extended government shutdown in U.S. history, I think it's safe to say this is the stupidest shutdown ever.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. This is complicated a bit because it wasn't a party-line vote -- four Republicans voted with the Democrats and five Democrats voted with the Republicans -- but I think it's still fair to call it a Democratic filibuster against a bill which apparently would have passed, 51 to 48, had a final vote been possible.

  2. Republicans control the Senate floor, so they determine what gets a vote, but Democrats can still offer an alternative as a unanimous consent proposal -- which gets no further consideration if any Senator objects. 

  3. It's clearly not the case that the majority party should get the blame for a shutdown no matter what, since the filibuster allows the Senate minority to stop legislation. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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