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With no deal in sight, shutdown reveals depth of ‘trust deficit’

Why We Wrote This

Lack of trust can hinder any negotiation, but it’s especially harmful in politics, where compromise is increasingly portrayed by activists on both sides as capitulation.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California leads Democrats in introducing government reform legislation at the US Capitol in Washington, Jan. 4, 2019.

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With the partial government shutdown at Day 17 and counting, Congress and the White House are at an impasse. President Trump refuses to put his name on any spending bill that doesn’t have $5.7 billion for his border wall. Democrats won’t support any funding for the wall – and their new House majority gives them the leverage to hold out. Hanging like a cloud over the negotiations is the question of trust. The political center in Washington has narrowed, leaders have bowed to their bases, and the idea of giving the other side what it wants has taken on the stink of surrender. Compounding it is Mr. Trump’s unpredictability. Lawmakers from both parties have grown leery of his habit of shifting his demands – and it’s much harder for them to go out on a political limb when they don’t know whether the president will be with them. “There’ll be less risk taken by both sides under conditions of mistrust,” says Frances Lee, a professor of government at the University of Maryland. “Any concessions Democrats make are likely to be denounced by their base of voters, and the same is true for Trump.”

In December 2013, when lead House and Senate negotiators struck a bipartisan budget deal to avert a government shutdown, relations between the parties were in a deep freeze.

Earlier that fall, Republicans forced a shutdown over the Affordable Care Act. Weeks later, Democrats exercised the “nuclear option” to muscle through confirmation of President Barack Obama’s federal judges.

Nevertheless, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington and then-Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin were able to get past all that to a two-year budget deal. They set clear ground rules: The big disagreements would be put aside so they could focus on finding common ground. There would be no public airing of their differences in the negotiating room. It helped, too, that they had come to know each other as people, sharing similar family experiences and a love of football.

“Our trust level was the most important thing about us getting to a deal,” says Senator Murray, reflecting on her experiences with her conservative counterpart, “and that’s what I fear about this current situation.”

With the partial government shutdown at Day 17 and counting, the question of trust hangs like a cloud over negotiations. Relations between congressional Republicans and Democrats have grown only more strained in the years since Murray and Mr. Ryan struck their deal. The political center has narrowed even more, leaders have bowed to their bases, and members have had fewer opportunities, or reasons, to cross the aisle. The idea of giving the other side what they want has taken on the stink of surrender, leading members to double down on their positions instead of looking for compromise – even on issues as basic as passing a budget.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
President Trump confers with Vice President Mike Pence and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R) of Louisiana in the Rose Garden after the president met with congressional leaders at the White House on Jan. 4, 2019, to try to negotiate an end to the government shutdown.

Compounding it all is President Trump’s unpredictability. Lawmakers from both parties have grown leery of his habit of shifting his demands – and it’s much harder for them to go out on a political limb when they don’t know whether the president will be with them.

Now Congress and the White House are at an impasse: The GOP-led Senate won’t pass anything that Mr. Trump won’t sign, and the president says he refuses to put his name on any spending bill that doesn’t have $5.7 billion for a border wall or steel barrier. Democrats have countered that they won’t support any funding for the wall – and their new majority in the House gives them the leverage to hold out. No one wants to be seen as giving ground.

“There’ll be less risk taken by both sides under conditions of mistrust,” says Frances Lee, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “Any concessions Democrats make are likely to be denounced by their base of voters, and the same is true for Trump.”

So close and yet so far

A deal that could have averted this shutdown seemed close in the week leading up to the deadline, after the White House signaled Trump was willing to sign a measure that included $1.6 billion for border security to keep the government funded.

But then conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and members of the Freedom Caucus called the president out for failing to fulfill his campaign pledge. Trump turned around and said he would not sign any bill with less than $5 billion for the wall.

It was in some ways a rerun of a year ago. Senators from both parties had sequestered themselves in the corner office of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine to try to end a shutdown over immigration. Sustained by Girl Scout cookies and popcorn, they came up with a short-term spending agreement and a commitment to bring immigration legislation to the floor for a vote.

Out of that came a bipartisan bill pairing $25 billion for border security (including for physical barriers) with a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” or children of undocumented immigrants. Sen. Mike Rounds (R) of South Dakota, who coauthored the bill with Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine, thought it had the backing of the White House.

Until, suddenly, it didn’t.

The day before the vote, Senator Rounds was informed the president was not going to support the bill. “That was a surprise to me,” says Rounds.

Now some Republicans are suggesting a slimmed-down version of that bill as a possible way out of today’s shutdown.

“The only way it’s going to happen, because there is a lack of trust, is if Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer and the president all come out and say publicly that they support a deal – so that they’re all held accountable,” Rounds says.

A stick-with-your-base approach

The breakdown in trust isn’t confined to relations between Congress and the White House. Within Capitol Hill, a hyperpartisan environment and media landscape incentivize a stick-with-your-base approach that has sped up institutional decline.

Legislative action in both chambers has flagged, and fewer and fewer amendments – a signal of deliberation, especially with rank-and-file members – have been introduced, according to a joint analysis of congressional data and documents by The Washington Post and ProPublica. Members are spending fewer days in Washington than ever, meaning less time for votes and discussion, much less building relationships.

Social media supercharges it all. Though voters have always been part of the calculus in policy debates – they are what distinguishes a business deal from a political one – never before have those debates been so subject to the winds and whims of public opinion. Sarah Binder, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution and professor at George Washington University, says publicly airing policy discussions in real time instead of holding closed-door conferences makes it difficult for lawmakers to explore all the routes to compromise. The negotiations turn into grandstanding contests. 

“If life was just zero-sum games, where there are six pieces of a pie and the minority always gets two pieces, then maybe closing the door wouldn’t be that important,” she says. “But if the point is to reach a position where both sides get a win, then opening the negotiations to the public will only get the base riled up.”

Some worry this shutdown will cast a shadow over negotiations between this Congress and the president for the next two years, from the budget to issues like infrastructure where the president and Democrats say they want to cooperate. Democratic priorities such as universal background checks for gun purchases, which House Democrats will tackle on Tuesday, and climate change seem destined to become 2020 messaging points. 

“If we don’t get over this, if this goes on for months and months … then that might be a preview of coming attractions,” says Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Others, like John Fortier at the Bipartisan Policy Center, say that once this shutdown is over – and it has to end sometime – there might be a chance to push for smaller bipartisan deals. “People are right to talk about infrastructure and prescription drug prices,” he says. “Sometimes there’s a moment for these things, and I’m hopeful there’s a window.”

“I really don’t think what happened yesterday affects how [Trump] evaluates what’s going on today or tomorrow,” adds Rep. Eric Swalwell (D) of California, a close ally of Pelosi. “So I just assume that once we’re past this, there’s going to be a new opportunity to collaborate.”

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