Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is proposing a one-week continuing resolution to stop the current shutdown, an idea Senate Democrats are apparently against. A few moderate Republicans are calling for a clean bill. The potential field of 2016 presidential hopefuls is saying very little about what should be done.
Except one, that is. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, often mentioned as a 2016 contender and engaged in his own re-election campaign, said he would have gotten all the leaders in Washington together and forced them to stay in the room until they came to a solution. At an event for the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation (how very New Jersey!), Christie spoke about how he would have handled the lead-up to the shutdown if he were chief executive.
"My approach would be, as the executive, to call in the leaders of Congress, or the legislature or whatever you're dealing with, and say we're not leaving this room until we fix this problem because I'm the boss. I'm in charge."
He went on to describe how the legislative branch is not "built to lead and take risks. What they're built to do is say 'How many votes do we have?' and 'How many do we need?' and 'Do I have to give my vote now or can I hold back a little bit and wait to see which way the wind is blowing?'"
Christie may be right that waiting for leadership from Congress is going to mean waiting forever, given the rate this Congress is going. It fits with his re-election message of compromise, and most people would agree we need much more of that in Washington.
But where he's wrong—at least in this situation—is the idea that the president can force other leaders into a room, tell them they can't leave because he's the boss, and expect a solution. That's not only wishful thinking, it's a simplistic idea of leadership.
As we saw in the debt ceiling crisis in 2011, House Speaker John Boehner walked away from negotiations with President Obama about a deal to raise the debt limit. The president may be the chief executive and have the bully pulpit, but he can't fire John Boehner or Eric Cantor or force them to negotiate with him. That may not be why Obama decided against engaging in talks this time—the president's position is that a functioning, funded government and paying the government's obligations are not the stuff of deal-making. But had he done so, the idea that Boehner or Cantor would keep their seats simply because the president told them to is far-fetched.
Moreover, there's plenty of reason to question whether putting five sharply divided people into a room together is the best way to get something done in the first place. The image of the president and congressional leaders sitting around a table makes for good photo opps, but such talk-fests haven't achieved much in the past. Boehner himself has said there were "too many people in the room" when describing why talks broke down in 2011 over the debt ceiling. And the deal to avert the fiscal cliff, if you'll recall, happened not in a big group setting but because two longtime senators hashed it out over the phone together in the final days before the deadline. The solution was unsatisfying, yes, but it worked. Old-fashioned, back-and-forth bargaining between two men who knew each other well was what finally closed the deal.
The final problem with a group session of party leaders to reach a compromise, of course, is that the forces dictating the terms of the debate would not be in attendance. Christie's approach might work if Boehner were really leading his party, but he's not. It's being led by the far right wing of his party. The idea that a group of leaders can work out a solution presumes that the people in the room are actually the ones in charge.