You’d think that the lesson about government shutdowns would have been learned in early 1996. That is when House Republican leaders beat a hasty and humiliating retreat from a hugely unpopular closure they had engineered to force spending cuts.
And if not in 1996 then surely in 2013, when a group of renegade Republicans turned to the tactic again in an effort to defund Obamacare. Again abject failure, followed by retreat.
Why President Donald Trump thought he’d succeed this time around is something of a mystery. Perhaps he imagined Democrats would agree to his terms. Or perhaps he figured he simply had no choice to try to fulfill a signature campaign promise.
In any case, the five-week shutdown that ended Friday was colossally stupid, not so much the mother of all shutdowns as the screaming baby of all shutdowns. It was fought over a border wall of limited utility that even Republicans weren’t able to fund when they controlled both chambers of Congress.
OPPOSING VIEW: Shutdowns remain a legitimate tool
The shutdown put stress on federal workers and contractors who live paycheck to paycheck, wasted taxpayer money by paying nonessential employees for not working and damaged the economy, particularly the travel industry.
If there’s any silver lining to this litany of pain, it’s that it might finally put an end to shutdowns. With Trump threatening another shutdown (or an emergency declaration) in three weeks if he doesn’t get as much as he wants on immigration, this is the time for lawmakers to take the tactic off the table for future budget fights.
All three of the major shutdowns have failed in their objectives. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is fond of saying, there’s no education in the second kick of a mule. To use a different metaphor, in baseball, it is clear what three strikes means. It should be in politics, too.
Among the changes to consider:
►Move the budget cycle from one to two years. That would reduce the moments at which a shutdown could occur. It would also add a measure of stability and continuity to government workers, contractors and anyone who interacts with government agencies.
►Force members of Congress to forfeit pay for the time they close the government. If they are going to cause pain to hundreds of thousands of Americans, it only stands to reason that they should share some of that pain. Such a measure could face constitutional challenges. But it is not entirely clear that Congress couldn’t voluntarily pass a law saying that it would skip pay during shutdowns.
►Continue funding agencies at existing levels while politicians haggle over the terms of the new budget. This should be handled carefully. Two-thirds of federal spending, which mostly consists of benefit programs such as Medicare and Social Security, is already on auto pilot. Too sweeping a measure to keep government open would effectively put all spending on auto pilot. One option might be to keep agencies open but impose gradual, automatic cuts that force lawmakers to the bargaining table.
Whatever the mechanism, shutdowns over partisan policy disputes are no way to run a government. They ought to be relegated to the dustbin of history.
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