As we head into the second month of the now longest government shutdown in U.S. history, we have a better sense of how the government got into this mess than how to resolve it or prevent it from happening again in the future. This political crisis has exposed an institutional flaw: namely, the personal risks associated with failing to fund the government are not properly aligned with the responsibilities for reopening it.
We are mired in what political scientists call the gridlock interval, a zone of inaction in which every move towards resolution is blocked by a critical player. Efforts by the House Democrats to reopen the government are blocked by the President, and the House in turn is blocking the President’s demands for 5.6 billion dollars to build out the wall on the Mexican border. Any new legislative solution this year from the Senate would require Democrat votes to avoid a filibuster. And without Donald Trump’s approval, anything that managed to make it out of the Congress would need 2/3rds of both houses to override the President’s likely veto. To riff on an old song, “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the gridlock interval with you.”
We have seen this act before, including twice earlier in the Trump Presidency when the Republicans had trifecta control of the government. Those deadlocks ended quickly. By comparison, shutdowns under divided government are harder to resolve, especially in an era of heightened partisan polarization and tight electoral contestation. Moreover, there are other various factors contributing to the current stalemate such as a President who cannot afford to alienate his base given the threat of impeachment, the far right’s antipathy to “deep state” government workers, and an energized progressive faction in the Democratic party caucus. This all makes it hard to find common ground.
But in the end, the government will reopen because outside pressures will build up inexorably. All of the Administration’s various tactical moves to shield the public and the economy from the consequences of disrupted government services will fail at some point. Government workers are already pushing back against efforts to make them work without pay. Stories about the hardship that these 800,000 government workers face are multiplying daily. The inconvenience of not receiving Federal tax refunds or passing through airport security in less than two hours will fuel more public discontent. Adverse economic effects may even rouse the stock market to send strong negative signals. President Trump’s job approval numbers are already worsening in ways even he cannot deny. This will all translate into growing pressure on the President to negotiate in good faith as opposed to laying out unconditional demands.
While I am optimistic that some compromise will emerge in time, I am less hopeful that we can avoid repeated cycles of fiscal brinksmanship over the next two years. What bothers me is not the use of crisis to induce compromise, but the displacement of the consequences onto people who do not have a role in resolving the dispute.
There is a clear disconnect between responsibility for this crisis and its consequences. Congressional salaries are constitutionally protected from the regular appropriations process. As a consequence, the shutdown does not affect members’ personal finances. This means that the country and affected government workers have to wait for the political heat and/or economic damages to build up to a critical level before Congress will act. At the moment, voters blame the President first and foremost, the Democrats to a lesser degree and the Senate Republicans hardly at all. The latter is a shame as the Senate could be a key actor in ending this showdown given its historical record of bipartisan deals.
While people in Washington sometimes talk the talk of states as laboratories, they rarely look outside the contours of the Capital for possible solutions, especially from California. But California offers fertile ground for possible reforms precisely because it has had to grapple with severe partisan polarization for decades and has a user-friendly direct democracy system that enables bold (if sometimes unwise) reform proposals.
Prior to 2010, California was prone to precisely the kinds of government shutdowns that the Federal government is now experiencing. Between fiscal year 2000-2001 and 2010-2011, only two budgets were enacted by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. As with the current Federal crisis, private sector contractors, government workers, and those dependent on government services suffered while the state legislature deadlocked over the budget.
One of the problems behind this was the requirement of a supermajority vote to approve the California state budget. This meant that the minority party could hold out for a better deal, much as the cloture vote functions as a legislative hurdle in the U.S. Senate. But the other problem was that legislators were entitled to back pay when the budget was finally resolved.
In 2010, the voters passed Proposition 25, changing both features. It changed the budget threshold to a majority vote (as it is in the U.S. Congress) and it stipulated that legislators would forfeit their pay and per diem reimbursements for the period of time it took to pass the budget beyond July 1. So did this work? We had a test the very next year.
The Democrats passed a budget by a majority vote without input from the Republicans or the approval of newly elected Governor Jerry Brown. Brown then vetoed parts of the budget that caused revenues and expenses to become unbalanced in violation of the state constitution. The State Controller, John Chiang, ruled that since the budget was not balanced, it was not finished. He declared that legislators would forfeit $400 a day plus their per diem expenses until they fixed the problem. The state legislature then made the necessary changes, and the 2010-2011 budget passed on time. There have been no missed budget deadlines since.
Given the state of U.S. politics, we should anticipate that the budget and debt limit negotiations will continue to be polarizing and contentious. It is easy to take symbolic stands when there are no personal consequences. It is harder when you have to explain to your family why you have given up money for some political cause. In short, one problem in the current shutdown is that members of Congress do not have enough skin in the game. The electoral signals are too slow to develop, and in the meantime, other people endure the consequences of the choices that Congress and the President have made.
Even if there are too many wealthy members of Congress (particularly in the U.S. Senate) for financial incentives to work as well in D.C. as they have in California, the idea of sharing the risk of a shutdown accords with widely held norms of fair play and shared sacrifice. It would of course take a constitutional amendment to make this happen, which is never an easy task. But the last amendment to pass was the 27th, which dealt with Congressional pay. Perhaps a 28th Amendment is the remedy for what ails Congress right now.