One of the more amazing spectacles in the days after the government shutdown ended was the obsession in Washington with who won and who lost in the showdown. Yes, the capital is focused on next year’s elections, but honestly! There was only one real loser, and that was the American people.
Why? Because nothing got resolved. The agreement leaves the government open only until mid-January, and gives the Treasury the ability to borrow through early February. All that effort secured us the barest minimum that we needed. Tax reform, spending, entitlements, jobs and economic growth: we’re no better off than we were before a small faction in Congress brought us to the brink of an unnecessary disaster. So the question is, can we avoid a similar crisis down the road?
The record of the recent past gives no ground for optimism, though members of Congress may now recognize the enormous economic costs to the nation of a shutdown and near-default. To avoid repeating their recent sorry spectacle, however, they will have to confront three challenges.
First, Congress has to break its habit of governing by crisis. Second, its members need to take a leaf from this most recent experience and remember that the essence of legislating is negotiation. Finally, they need to recognize that every time Congress fails to assert itself, other institutions gain more power at its expense.
Great democracies do not lurch from doomsday moment to doomsday moment. They plan ahead, confront and resolve their challenges, fulfill their responsibilities abroad, and respond to their own people’s needs. Congress can do none of these things so long as its members insist on resolving one crisis by setting up another a few months down the road.
Some people in Washington argue that this is because we live in trying times, faced with bewildering economic upheaval, social and demographic change, and a sorely divided body politic. That’s all true — but politics has always been about getting things done in difficult environments. Congress was designed to be the institution where the difficulties of the moment could be overcome by legislators with the skill and temperament to work together to overcome them. Instead, we face a host of challenges with a Congress unable to address them because it can only postpone a crisis from one date to another.