President Obama must continue to refuse to negotiate policy while the government is shut down. If he does not hold firm on this principle, these mindless and grossly inefficient closures threaten to become the new normal. Real shutdowns—and not just vague threats of closures– could well become a standard part of the annual budget process.
And it may not end there. If shutdowns become routine, attention-seeking lawmakers (are there any other kind?) will only escalate their threats. Breaching the debt limit then becomes the next target of opportunity. In just two weeks, we may be there as well.
This is not an argument for retaining the Affordable Care Act or any of its provisions—the issue ostensibly behind the current stalemate. It is an argument for not slipping into ever-more paralyzing fiscal gridlock. In this case, the process matters far more than the immediate policy controversy.
Already much of Washington and Wall Street has become dangerously blasé about the current shutdown. Oh, a few days or a week—no big deal. If it goes longer than that, they insist, then we’ll worry.
This is an exceedingly dangerous view that ignores the reality that every parent learns the hard way: Unchecked bad behavior begets worse behavior.
Just take a look at what’s happened to the Senate in recent years. Once, filibusters were rare exceptions. Now, they are constant. Nearly every bill, no matter how trivial, requires 60 votes for passage in a body that historically required a mere majority.
Similarly, presidential nominations are now routinely blocked for reasons only occasionally having to do with the qualifications of the nominee. Lawmakers have learned that they can take a nominee hostage in order to send an ideological message or convince an administration to change a regulation.
As a result, behavior that was once rare has become as routine as the Senate’s daily prayer.
The same thing has happened with the budget process. Over the past four decades, various efforts to manage the deficit eventually failed in the same way: Each included special rules aimed at waiving their spending limits in the event of an emergency. But lawmakers soon learned they could use these exceptions whenever they wanted. They got addicted, the waivers became the legislative norm, and efforts to control spending withered.
I fear the same is about to happen with government shutdowns. Once those who would use the shutdown as a useful legislative lever succeed, it will become a tool of choice. True, it couldn’t be used in every circumstance, but there would be enough opportunities to make it the next filibuster.
Obama deserves as much blame for this turn of events as the tea party Republicans. It was the president who, in the summer of 2011 willingly used a similar artificial crisis to try to win a grand fiscal bargain with the congressional GOP. His effort was a miserable failure, but it taught lawmakers that fiscal hostage-taking works.
Late last year, Washington repeated the same exercise—again bringing the government to the brink of a shutdown and threatening a breach of the nation’s debt limit.
So it should have been a surprise to no one that headline-seeking lawmakers used a similar set of circumstances to once again manipulate the political system to their advantage. But this time, the mere threat of a shutdown wasn’t enough. This time, they had to go the next step and padlock the doors (some of them, anyway).
If the president cracks under the pressure, lawmakers of both parties will learn a simple lesson: You get what you want by forcing a government shutdown. It will happen again and again. And most of us will come to regret it.