How To End Government Shutdowns

The most recent shutdown provided the template for stopping all shutdowns forever.

The air traffic control tower at Newark. Source: NYCAviation

The nation’s longest government shutdown ever is temporarily over. Donald Trump and the Democratic leadership in Congress agreed to a three-week stopgap measure last Friday that would open the government along with congressional negotiations. Trump and his supporters are threatening to restart the shutdown if those negotiations fail, but political headwinds are clearly against this president on this account. The president’s approval ratings dropped four points over the shutdown to an average of 39%, his lowest average approval rating in over a year. The vast majority of the nation blamed Trump for the shutdown and continues to oppose his border wall. There is a better chance that congressional negotiators will find a fig leaf to soothe the president’s ego and allow him to reopen the government without his beloved border wall.

During the shutdown, commentators who were naturally aghast at the country’s state of affairs proposed a number of solutions to stop shutdowns in the future. They discussed the possibility of a continual resolution that would prevent the country from ever having another shutdown. But many liberals quickly criticized the idea of a continual CR. Jim Newell of Slate argued that “the trick in writing an effective automatic CR is ensuring that it doesn’t give Congress an incentive to stay stuck in continuing-resolution limbo forever.” Annie Lowery agreed, writing, “A stuck-in-time budget would choke off the necessary, natural expansion of federal spending as the country gets bigger and inflation eats at the dollar.”

There is clearly a middle way between these two approaches. In order to end shutdowns forever, one must study why this shutdown ended in the first place.

Republican politicians are responsible for the vast majority of government shutdowns. They are predisposed to support privatization of government services and the reduction of government benefits. In many ways, a government shutdown can support them politically. Dahlia Lithwick argued that the shutdown supported the conservative narrative that government services should be privatized, and that “the best source of aid in a crisis lies in the charity of warm and loving communities, not in government services.”

Therefore, the only way to prevent the next government shutdown is by changing the rules to ensure that Republicans feel political pain for a shutdown as soon as possible. Once in power again, Democrats should not pass an automatic CR. They would not be able to fight the inertia, infighting, and institutional paralysis to pass a new budget or spending increases the next time there is divided government. Democrats should also not pass a law stripping members of Congress of their paychecks, since the average Republican is wealthier and can better weather a few empty pay stubs.

Instead, Democrats should pass a law stipulating that TSA agents and air traffic controllers must be furloughed the moment that a shutdown begins. This condition could be justified on national security and aircraft safety grounds, and the results would be immediate. Air traffic in the country would be ground to a halt. Thousands of business travelers, the individuals in higher income brackets that make up much of the Republican donor base, would lose deals and miss critical meetings. There would never again be a week-long shutdown, let alone one that dragged on for a month with no end in sight.

Government shutdowns are a complex aspect of the American political system. It is difficult to eradicate them entirely while still ensuring that lawmakers have an incentive to compromise and pass difficult legislation. The best alternative is to have government shutdowns hurt those with political power, specifically the men and women who lead political movements and donate to campaigns. A shutdown that only harms HUD loan officers or park rangers could go on indefinitely. But one that attacks fortunes and the free flow of business is doomed from the beginning.

I’m a writer interested in the intersections of history, ideas, and politics. I publish every week.

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