Was the shutdown and the 11th-hour drama really significant? The markets anticipated a last-minute deal, and that deal was reached. Almost every commentator predicted that we would not default, and we didn’t. Does anyone think Republicans or Democrats were sufficiently wounded by the shutdown to ensure it doesn’t happen again? The half-life on the fallout from this is probably shorter than Democrats want it to be and longer than most Republicans hope it will be. But I fear that no one “learned a lesson” and we’re on a trajectory to repeat the drama again in a few months. So, has any good come from this?
Nostalgia for the likes of Senator Bob Dole and Speaker Tip O’Neill has been an easy way to mourn what just happened in Washington. But Dole and O’Neill weren’t supermen. Each had characters in their caucus who would go their own way, and, at times, each had to deal with a hostile White House. I won’t bore readers with parliamentary trivia or history, but the difference is that these leaders could make substantive progress because they and their caucuses were playing by a specific set of rules, rules that gave them a governing structure.
We have new problems not because there is new partisanship or because civility is at an all-time low. The reason is that we have abandoned the rules that guide an orderly governing process in Washington. Somewhere along the way, with the president’s approval, Congress decided that the rules it had written for itself on how to spend taxpayer money were either too onerous or no longer applied in today’s world. The White House agreed. Brinkmanship and political theater filled the void, fueled by cable news and radio enablers and the constant availability of conservative and liberal outlets on the Web.
There is a lot of noise about what the shutdown debacle means for the Republican Party and its sub-caucus, the so-called tea party. The tea party is a minority of the minority party, yet commentators blame it for the current state of affairs. The tea party’s stubbornness and obstructionism produced the near-death experience from which we barely escaped. But how can we blame the tea party when it is doing exactly what it said it would do when it got elected? The fact is that bunches of Republicans were elected to shake their fists at the traditional powers and blow up anything that looks like the business-as-usual status quo.
It is the failure of leadership of both the president and the bipartisan leaders of Congress that has allowed this small group to stifle American governance. When the president and bipartisan congressional leaders fail to act as coaches and referees, a few tea party members can take us to the brink. They don’t necessarily think that the shutdown was a complete travesty; they think the old order is resisting needed change, and they’re going to keep going down the same road unless the leadership gets its act together and puts a stop to them.
The tea party doesn’t have this power because its members are skilled operators but because the president and the congressional leadership are not doing their jobs. It’s hard to imagine, but committee chairmen — and even subcommittee chairmen — used to have power and an important role to play in ensuring order. But rather than play by the old rules, which the Senate in particular has played by for decades and decades, we discarded the rules governing how we allocate taxpayer money and began to rely on all-or-nothing mega-votes ready made for demagogues. Instead of a months-long process in which priorities are determined by leaders through dozens of late-night appropriations bargaining sessions, we hold all-encompassing votes-on-the-brink that essentially maintain the same old brain-dead spending levels. Instead of reasoned debate and competition among members of Congress, we’re left with made-for-TV shouting contest in which those with the loudest opinions or just an ax to grind are a substrate for governing. That is the new normal, and it’s what is what we experienced over the past two weeks. I fear the skills required to orchestrate Washington are being lost. The budget process that has provided the rules of the debate and determined Washington’s winners and loser has been abandoned.
Given that the congressional chambers are closely divided, a relatively few lawmakers can make a difference. Let’s not forget that the Senate failed to pass a budget even once during President Obama’s first term. Why write a detailed budget that exposes division in the Democratic ranks, the Senate majority thought? It’s easier for them just to bash Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budgets, which are full of juicy specifics that make them easy targets to exploit with interest groups and the media, which are always eager to expose “heartless Republicans.” The Senate only came to life when the House managed to pass a bipartisan bill that withheld senators’ pay if they didn’t pass a budget. The president is also a big part of the problem. Maybe he wasn’t in the Senate long enough to understand the rules, but he needs to insist on a functioning, regular order, and that starts with a budget.
Brinksmanship rules the day, but the remedy isn’t something new. It’s something tried and true. Our salvation won’t come from developing an innovative budget process or even from changing attitudes in Washington. We need to go back to the old ways. Better government and economic growth will require that Congress return to passing a long series of boring appropriations bills. Boring is better than brinksmanship.