I served as House majority leader in 2013 during the last government shutdown. A lot has changed in our nation’s politics since then, but when it comes to shutdowns, much remains the same. A shutdown is a pretty pointless exercise in self-inflicting a modest wound. And the media obsession with countdown clocks and shuttered national parks misses the real story: the inability of some elected officials to work within the realities of governing rather than the perceived realities of the political cocoons that members of both parties increasingly occupy.
The 2013 shutdown was the result of some Republicans, first in the Senate and then in the House, insisting that the president sign into law a provision defunding Obamacare, even though the president who would have to sign that was … Barack Obama. In the real world, it was an absurd idea. But in the political cocoons of some on the right – I won’t call these conservative – it was a plausible strategy that required only greater resolve on the part of elected Republicans to succeed. After 16 days, I along with 86 other House Republicans voted to reopen the government. Obamacare was just as funded as it was before.
The circumstances leading to today’s shutdown are of course different. On its face, it is congressional Democrats who are insisting that something be done, in this case on immigration, in exchange for their support for reopening the government.
But the root causes of today’s shutdown are the same as they were in 2013: a desire to govern in a reality that doesn’t exist.
Washington has a lot of must-do items on its plate: resolving the status of “dreamers” under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, agreeing to new discretionary spending levels (especially for defense), raising the statutory debt limit and mitigating some of negative impacts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Addressing each of these will require bipartisan support, and one can easily see the outlines of a reasonable compromise:
– A permanent solution, including a path to citizenship, for DACA recipients in exchange for a major investment in border security.
– A significant increase in defense spending coupled with a sizable increase for nondefense, with much of the latter set aside for pressing national priorities, such as the opioids crisis and infrastructure.
– An increase in the debt limit – there is no political appetite today for the major entitlement reforms our country needs over the long term.
– Restoring cost-sharing subsidies under the ACA and extending the suspension of ACA taxes in exchange for greater flexibility for states to reform the ACA.
I suspect that when the shutdown concludes and the smoke clears, something along those lines will be the new law of the land. So why go through the shutdown to get there? Because, not insignificant, elements of both parties think they can govern in a world where they get everything they want without agreeing to some of the priorities of the other side.
For example: on the left, DACA without anything meaningful to secure the border, and on the right, the wall but no path to citizenship. That may sound doable on certain cable “news” shows, but it isn’t if you’re governing in the real world.
As in 2013, the practical impact of this government shutdown will be modest and temporary. Some number of Americans will be needlessly inconvenienced, and the government will waste a fair amount of money shutting down and reopening. But we will soon recover just as we have after all previous shutdowns.
The political impact will also be temporary. In the midst of a shutdown, pundits like to spend a lot of time speculating about who will be blamed. Most voters quickly forgot the 2013 shutdown. The news cycle is even more rapid and our attention spans even shorter today.
The lasting impact will be determined by the attitude our elected officials take away from this pointless, self-inflicted wound. Is there a renewed commitment to governing within the constraints of the real world and the need for bipartisan agreement? Or do more members of both parties retreat to the safety of political cocoons?
We will begin to see the answer to that question when we see who votes to reopen the government.
Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001 to 2014, where he was House majority leader from 2011 to 2014. He is vice chairman and managing director of the investment bank Moelis & Company.
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