Government Shutdowns Threaten To Become The New Normal

By :: October 3rd, 2013

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.


  1. Michael Bindner  ::  11:44 pm on October 3rd, 2013:

    We need to require a Joint Budget Resolution before the Budgetary Appendix is released to Congress and the public. Information is what Congress thrives on and without it they will deal. I think Bush even tried it one year and it worked, which is why they told him to never do it again. If the Congress does not enact appropriations legislation, the current services baseline should automatically take effect on the beginning of the fiscal year. Congress can then amend the baseline appropriation, but can’t stop government while waiting to do so. As for the debt limit, it should either be part of the JBR or we could cancel it according to the 14th Amendment (which Congress ignores every time it passes a debt limit extension). During the Budget Control Act period, the budget caps should serve as Section 302 allocations with the same automatic appropriations on the current services baseline if no bill is passed.

    Of course the cynical can rightly complain that Tea Party opposition is based on Obama’s age and race – and it will sadly continue to haunt Mrs. Clinton should she run and win as expected, as the GOP has destroyed itself as a national party and will soon be overrun by Latino voters with or without immigration reform.

  2. Laurie Berger  ::  4:51 am on October 4th, 2013:

    This is the reason President Obama can NOT give in.

  3. Vivian Darkbloom  ::  5:12 am on October 4th, 2013:

    The WSJ published an informative op-ed today that outlines the “history” of debt limit votes. Howard is correct: automatic debt limit increases (something that won’t be faced until later this month) and similar budgetary brinkmanship such as we now experience are, unfortunately, nothing new:

    How did we get here? There is an alternative explanation that Howard has apparently not considered.

    Brinkmanship is the result when two sides fail to deal with each other to arrive at mutual compromise.

    If that is the root cause, and I believe it is, then I would have to question the wisdom of advocating the current refusal to negotiate as the answer to the problem of past failure to negotiate. This is particularly true of our Chief Executive—the only person elected to government who is supposed to represent *all* Americans and whose overriding quality should be leadership. The tone for this sort of civilized bargaining is set at the top, as it should be, and not by some junior Senator from Texas.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see an answer to this problem unless and until that leadership is shown. An equally likely outcome of the path Howard is recommending (negotiating is translated here as “cracking under pressure”) is that the failure to negotiate will be seen as a successful future strategy. That’s a bad precedent, too, and not an answer to our problems.

    My view on this would likely be different had there been any sign that the President had, leading up to this crisis, evidenced any genuine attempt to prevent it. What evidence is there that at any stage of this process that he did or even was willing to sit down, in good faith (rather than as a cynical political ploy) to address the concerns of a very significant minority? This has been like watching a slow train wreck. It is not like the President and everyone else could not have seen it coming. Obstinancy, the refusal to negotiate, as Howard is now recommending, did not come at the end of the process. It has been the strategy all along. Should that now be rewarded?

    What would have happened if Obama, having seen this coming, had much earlier called Boehner for a *genuine* talk and said, “listen, we can work this out”. I’m not going to cancel ObamaCare or even delay it, but let’s try to come up with some changes that you like that might even improve it. I’ll give you something you can take back to your caucus. That’s what a real leader would have done. Instead, he gave a repeat of past tactics: Signal the intent that I’m not going to negotiate, then call your opponent in at the last minute for cynical public relations purposes only to announce behind closed doors that the purpose of this meeting is to tell you that I’m not going to negotiate. Perhaps that would have set the stage and the tone for future cooperation on other pressing things like comprehensive tax reform.

    Unfortunately, Howard, I see your proposed course of action as rewarding that kind of behavior which, in all the presidencies I have observed, is unprecedented.

  4. jim jaffe  ::  11:10 am on October 4th, 2013:

    question is which issues are so important as to justify such an extreme response and whether the minority should use its power to close things down on a regular basis. There was strong Republican opposition to Social Security, and subsequently Medicare, but they’re not threatening to close down the government and default unless these programs they were unenthusiastic about are repealed. The debt ceiling is a housekeeping chore that results from spending decisions Congress makes and economic conditions. That why in days past the House didn’t bother to vote on it all, but included it automatically with the budget legislation. In this instance, we don’t even know what the Republicans want — fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction, or elimination of Obamacare, which will take us in the opposite direction.

  5. Patty  ::  1:17 pm on October 4th, 2013:

    Obama’s mistake was that he should not have negotiated in the first place. Once he did it, that opened the door to having the minority party believe they can get more concessions,all they have to do is threaten the US economy and not have to give up anything in return. What are republicans willing to give up? Does anyone know?

    Don’t put it all on Obama, he has to have someone on the other side who is willing to talk with him. Who has been brave enough to honestly want to talk with him without being attacked for being a RINO. It’s a badge of honor for some in the republican party to show their street creds by being confrontational with the president. How do you work with that?

  6. Vivian Darkbloom  ::  1:33 pm on October 4th, 2013:


    I invite you (and Jim Jaffe) to list all the ways that President Obama has attempted to “negotiate” in an attempt to avert this budget crisis. Perhaps I’ve missed something—it’s possible, of course—but, the only thing that comes to my mind is “I refuse to negotiate”.

    Again, if you are aware of prior initiatives on his part, please let me know.


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