The Real Takeaway from the Shutdown: Congress Is Broken
More than 48 hours after the 69-hour weekend government shutdown, party leaders and members of Congress continue to spin and assign blame. Who won the shutdown is mostly irrelevant to the weeks ahead, but the debate itself highlights more fundamental problems in American politics.
The deeper issue is what this brief and soon-forgotten episode says about the broken legislative practices inside the halls of Congress. From immigration to health care, privacy to national security, there are bipartisan majorities on Capitol Hill willing to debate any number of important bills. The problem is they aren’t getting a say in what Congress debates. Congressional leaders care more about spin than deliberation. As a result, Congress has morphed from a democratic arena weighing important policy differences to a debate-stunted PR firm. This is not exactly new, but the 115th Congress is reaching new levels of dysfunction. And as long as leaders seek brinkmanship over debate, shutdowns will become only more common.
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One reason is the growing power of hard-line activist groups, on both sides, to set the political agenda. Neither party really wanted a shutdown, but they valued other priorities more than keeping the government open. Democrats wanted to stand firm to protect from deportation the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, under a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA; Republicans would rather risk a shutdown than make any concessions that might accentuate their party’s internal divisions on immigration.
Strategically, Democrats got nothing of value from shuttering the government. They gained no leverage they didn’t already have. It didn’t make a DACA bill more likely to pass. If anything, it may have slightly weakened their hand in the short term.
Democrats do, however, still have significant leverage on several spending and fiscal issues coming up over the next several weeks. Congress will soon turn to raising the Budget Control Act caps, increasing the debt limit and drafting an omnibus spending package. Since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they have averaged fewer than 160 Republican "yes" votes on budget, spending and debt limit legislation. If that history is any indicator, Democrats will be needed to pass these routine governing bills and can rightly demand policy concessions in exchange for their support to keep the government running. So Democrats did not need to filibuster the short-term spending bill on Friday to get leverage for passing DACA. They already have it.
Further, McConnell’s promise does not give Senate Democrats what they really need: the ability to push a DACA bill through the House. McConnell’s pledge is valuable only if you pretend the lower chamber does not exist, as Houes Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) reminded everyone yesterday. Immigration is a notoriously difficult issue for House Republicans. For years, it has divided their majority, incentivizing speakers to ignore the subject altogether. For example, a bipartisan immigration reform bill sailed through the Senate in 2013 but never even moved out of committee in the House. A barrage of public pressure by activists and Democrats, and threats of a discharge petition were not enough to overcome Republican fissures on the issue.
The House is in a similar place today. Speaker Paul Ryan would need to overcome significant agitation in his own conference, and likely risk his political career, to bring a bipartisan immigration bill to the House floor on its own. To say nothing of the fact that Republicans in both chambers are looking to President Donald Trump for guidance. He hasn’t clarified what kind of Democratic concessions he’s willing to accept in exchange for a deal on DACA—so Republican lawmakers remain paralyzed.
Many observers rightly point out that Democrats lost no leverage by reopening the government after a three-day shutdown. This brings into focus a larger strategic question: Was it necessary to filibuster a functioning majority when Democrats hold more leverage over the spending bills Congress will take up over the next two months?
The short answer is no. Democrats essentially shut down the government in exchange for a promise they didn’t need and that won’t ensure passage of a DACA bill. The only plausible reason for the shutdown was to appease those on the left looking to secure a DACA fix immediately. The blowback Schumer is receiving from progressives suggests they may not have accomplished that goal, either.
This has implications beyond an unmemorable shutdown. As many Democrats argued in 2013, shutting down the government to force debate on broader policy issues is irresponsible governance, a waste of taxpayer dollars and damaging to the economy. It is simply too high a price to exact on what should be a routine legislative debate in the chambers of Congress. But on Friday, they helped normalize shutdown threats, a tactic they derided just four years ago.
Unfortunately, it won’t get better. The weekend shutdown only reminded us that congressional leaders in both parties care more about public relations than proper deliberation. By nearly every deliberative standard—open debate, amendments, committee debate and markup—this is among the least democratic Congresses in our history. Media outlets are filled with takes on who won the shutdown. Republicans are doing victory laps, seemingly unaware their party remains in a horrifically bad negotiating position for Feb. 8, when they will likely get rolled on several fronts. Democratic spinmeisters are claiming they didn’t get rolled over the weekend. It’s a vapid debate congressional leaders want, but it glosses over the institution’s fundamental problem.
Congress was envisioned as the hub of American debate. Yet today, it evidently requires a government shutdown just to begin serious policy discussions on the floor of either chamber. Brinkmanship has replaced deliberation. And because of that, we’ll be hearing about all this again in 15 days.
via POLITICO Magazine
January 24, 2018 at 11:31AM