Justice Felix Frankfurter once said that “Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of the arts.” After 35 days of partial government shutdown—the longest major government shutdown in U.S. history—our government seems to have lost all sense of subtlety. If we must describe it in terms of art, “Kindergarteners with crayons” seems most appropriate. Simply put, the State of the Union is dysfunctional.
Let us not forget that the government shutdown had real world financial costs. Standard & Poor’s recently estimated that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy at least $6 billion.* (The irony of this figure, given that the Trump administration was asking for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, should not be understated.) This estimation is likely an underestimate as Kevin Hasset, the chair of White House Council of Economic Advisors, has projected that each week the government remained shutdown could reduce quarterly economic growth by 0.1%.
To any neutral observer, it quickly became clear that the shutdown debate was not about $5.7 billion. The U.S. economy is approximately $20 trillion and just last year Congress once again demonstrated its willingness to spend beyond its means, increasing defense and social spending by $300 billion over the next two years. The shutdown debate was about politics, plain and simple. Trump and the Democrats each have radical elements in their base that they feel obligated to please. You are either team #BuildTheWall or #NoBanNoWall. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the “exhausted majority,” up to two thirds of the country who are fed up with polarization and want politicians to find common ground, are yet again left wanting.
While the government shutdown debate has come to a pause for the next three weeks, the question remains: who is to blame? Unsurprisingly, where you stand depends on where you sit. Democrats are quick to place most if not all blame on President Trump. And there is certainly blame, perhaps even a majority of the blame, to be found here. In December, Trump rejected a continuing resolution (which would fund the government through February at current budget levels) that passed the Senate unanimously due to pressures from the House Freedom Caucus. Once Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2019, Trump’s negotiation tactics were unbecoming of someone who wrote “The Art of the Deal.” Trump frequently changed his position, walked out of negotiations, undercut his negotiators, and drove the debate to new petty lows by denying Speaker Nancy Pelosi the use of military aircraft to visit deployed U.S. troops in Afghanistan. President Trump infamously stated that he would “own the shutdown,” and current polling seems to suggest Americans agree with his assessment.
Although less frequently levied, Democrats can cast blame at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who, after unanimously passing a continuous resolution in December, refused to put a similar bill on the Senate floor until the President signaled his willingness to sign it, effectively abdicating the Congress’ check on executive authority. The measure most likely could have overridden a Presidential veto and reopened the government. Instead, we were left asking #WheresMitch ?
With all of this being said, the Democrats are far from blameless. Driven by a base that is increasingly unwilling to compromise, the Democrats attacked Trump’s border wall as “immoral, ineffective and expensive.” This critique was more than disingenuous. How could Trump’s border wall be immoral now when just last year the Democrats were willing to give $25 billion in funding towards it? If a wall on the southern border is immoral, what about the 600 miles of barriers that currently exist along the U.S.-Mexico border that was constructed during administrations of both parties?
There is room for legitimate debate about the effectiveness of a border wall. Opponents will point out that most illegal immigration results from visa overstays and that most drugs are seized at legal ports of entry. Proponents can fairly point out that there are 300-400 thousand border apprehensions per year and that 10-20% of drugs do not come through legal points of entry. We should not be surprised that there is truth on both sides of the debate. But, given the size of federal government spending, $5.7 billion cannot be fairly characterized as expensive. If the issue was not so supercharged with partisanship, a request of this magnitude would have been an inconsequential footnote in the budget process. Instead the Democrats, yet again, forgot Michelle Obama’s mantra and went low when Republicans went low, bottoming-out with Nancy Pelosi’s disinvitation of President Trump to the State of the Union.
With the shutdown debate temporarily resolved, there have been claims that the Democrats “won.” Such assertions, which view the nuanced work of governance from a tribalist, Manichean, “us-versus-them” perspective forget that we are all supposed to be on one team in this country. That we are not Red or Blue states, but the United States. And from that perspective, the shutdown debate can only be categorized as a national disgrace, as a result of which we all lost.
Congress is currently considering legislation to prevent further government shutdowns by automatically defaulting to a continuing resolution if the government fails to pass a spending bill. From a practical standpoint, I suppose I support this measure. The current cycle of government shutdowns is unsustainable. However, passing a federal budget is one of if not the core responsibilities of the legislative branch outlined in Article One of the Constitution. Neglecting this obligation and defaulting to past years’ budgets because both parties cannot agree on changes is a dereliction of duty. Last year’s budget may prove wholly inappropriate for addressing this year’s changing economic conditions, fiscal constraints, national security concerns, and more. No decision is a decision. And defaulting to indecision should be troubling to we the people.
At the end of the day, our politics is a reflection of ourselves. This is the government we elected and the government we deserve. Presidential Historian Jon Meacham once said that partisanship should be reflective, not reactive. His words are prescient. Political parties and partisanship are not inherently bad. They serve an important function of simplifying representative government in a complex world. However, when parties become tribal identities and partisanship inhibits the work of governance, we cannot stand idly by and accept the status quo. Politics, like art, requires detail, nuance, and intentionality. If we learn nothing else from the recent shutdown debate, I hope that we can remember this.
*Recent Congressional Budget Office projections now estimate that the shutdown cost $11 billion.