With the partial shutdown of the federal government now temporarily resolved, we are left wondering if what has happened over the past several weeks comes even remotely close to providing the American people with the government they deserve.
The president — not exactly your traditional optimist — expressed doubt over the weekend that Congress will offer a deal on border security that he will accept. Meanwhile, Washington is going about looking for a more permanent resolution in a very traditional Washington way. An ad hoc committee — apparently this time a bipartisan gaggle of 17 members of the House and Senate — will work together to hammer out the details of a possible compromise. And here, we agree with Donald Trump, the process seems unlikely to stumble upon the magical ordering of details to resolve the governing stalemate that has descended upon the nation’s capital.
The truth is that even while federal workers across the country head back to work on a three-week reprieve before the next deadline, the government in Washington isn’t functioning. At least it’s not functional in any rational sense of that word. One example: According to the Congressional Budget Office, the shutdown cost the economy about $3 billion. That’s not exactly the difference between what Trump wanted for the border ($5.7 billion) and what the opposition party had supported in the past ($1.4 billion), but it’s not that far off either.
We don’t pretend to believe that there is ever a time when partisan politics don’t consume good ideas, that petty political rivalries don’t stymie some needed reforms, that our representative form of government doesn’t at least partially represent our divisions as a society. But things are seriously broken in Washington when, two years into an administration, large numbers of senior positions are unfilled, when basic functions such as funding day-to-day operations of the government are beyond our lawmakers’ abilities, and when at any given moment it is reasonable for us to fear that federal workers performing basic services, such as air traffic controllers, won’t be fully staffed up.
Count us among those who believe the government is involved in many activities that it performs poorly or shouldn’t perform at all. But we’re also of the mind that government should be boring, not chaotic. Federal agencies need to be stable, competent and plainly routine.
And here is one nexus point where we believe the president is both making a miscalculation and doing us, the people living outside of the Beltway, a disservice. After the financial crisis and nearly a decade of slow if not stagnant economic growth, it was probably inevitable that the federal government would undergo a thorough shakeup. We’d argue a shakeup was well deserved. But in the end, the point of such a shakeup is to make the government more functional, more responsive to the needs of the citizenry and more respectful of the very people it seeks govern.
Nothing about this era indicates any of those things are happening. The president’s miscalculation is that a coalition of voters large enough to enable him to govern will stick with him regardless of the amount of uncertainty, chaos or destruction he causes. Trump was handed a once-in-a-generation opportunity when he won the White House. All of his political capital rested on support for sweeping in real change. The catch was that the change had to meaningfully improve things. It’s clear that the administration has forced a rethink on a lot of fronts, but it is equally clear that the administration isn’t leaving the country with a clearer sense of direction. As a result, the president is walking an increasingly narrow path. He has very little political capital left and every day looks more isolated and alone.
Our bet is that is exactly where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to leave the president for the remainder of his term, and, therefore, there will be little opportunity to strike a deal in the coming weeks. But here is where the rest of us — the people who have to live with the consequences of all of this — need to speak up. We deserve more from our representatives. And at some point, the leader who discards partisan warfare in favor of shaking Washington back into functional behavior will emerge on top.