Three times this year, the federal government has shut down.
No matter your position on a border wall, one thing is clear: Political leadership in Washington is as incompetent as it has ever been. The only comparable recent period is the late 1970s, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress and Jimmy Carter was president.
There were three partial shutdowns in 1977, though they were much more limited in scope than recent ones.
The bumbling of the Democratic Party in the late 70s found its Republican equivalent this week.
There are indications that this shutdown won’t be short like the others. Trump has pledged to be prepared for a “very long shutdown.” Members of the Senate went home for the holidays after passing a spending bill and had to be recalled to cast additional votes on a border wall. Retiring Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who remembers saner days, broke down in laughter.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” he told the press. “Y’all have fun.”
The shutdown will have immediate costs. Federal employees performing all sorts of vital work will be put on furlough. The Farm Services Agency will close, and farmers won’t be able to secure credit. The Forest Service will pare down to a bare-bones staff.
But these aren’t the main costs. Those are long-term.
As former INL Director John Grossenbacher has noted, the constant threat that funding might run dry several times a year — not because of a lack of money, but because of political incompetence — makes it a nightmare to plan anything long-term.
These long-term costs continue to pile up each time another shutdown happens and each time one is threatened. But there is no end in sight.
How did things get to this point?
You can trace much of it back to 2013.
That’s when a group of lawmakers, of which Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador was a prominent and vocal member, forced an extended government shutdown and then risked defaulting on the debt in an effort to win a one-year delay in the implementation of Obamacare. They failed, and when they had control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress, they failed to repeal it. And it’s quite likely that second failure stems, at least in part, from the fractiousness that developed after the Freedom Caucus decided to hold the budget hostage.
After 2013 the tactic became normalized. Threatened shutdowns became routine and occasionally turned into actual ones.
In what may have been the pettiest act in the history of government, Sen. Jim Risch attempted to block a government spending bill, risking a shutdown in March, to stop the White Clouds Wilderness from being named after his deceased political rival, Gov. Cecil Andrus. That’s how lightly shutting down the government is now being treated.
There was a basic truth shutdown backers never grasped. Tactically, budget brinkmanship might prove effective for a small group to force this or that priority. But it’s a strategic disaster.
Any small victory will be a pyrrhic one.
Pyrrhic victories are named for the Greek King Pyrrhus, who defeated a Roman army at the cost of one-third of his men. But Pyrrhus was wiser than those pushing the shutdown. When someone congratulated him on his win, he replied that another victory like that would be the end. Ultimately, the Greeks were forced to flee in defeat.
Winning a battle can lose you the war.
And no matter what happens with the wall, we all lose in this shutdown. This incompetence will breed future incompetence. Shutting down the government and imposing general pain will again be normalized as a tactic of political warfare, making it more likely this ridiculous spectacle will be repeated.
And few, if any, of our leaders appear to have any concrete plans to address this endless cycle. Here’s a suggestion.
One way to escape the escalating cycle of incompetence is to enact a law that would keep current levels of funding unless Congress changes them. That would take the kamikaze option out of lawmakers’ hands and force them to do the old-fashioned work of crafting compromises if they want to change things.
Wouldn’t that put the government on autopilot? Sure it would. But if incompetent human pilots keep turning off the engines mid-air, autopilot might be the best we can hope for.
Or our leaders could stop behaving like fools.