It's time to end federal government shutdowns once and for all. This tactic has been abused for decades by politicians seeking to obtain through extortion what they can't get through the regular legislative process. It's a governmental self-destruct button that shouldn't exist.
After the recent shutdown, America's longest ever, support is building in Congress to prevent future use of this extreme option. The sooner it passes, the better.
The 35-day shutdown that ended Friday began when President Donald Trump couldn't get congressional approval to fulfill his campaign promise for a wall along the southern border. So, egged on by right-wing media, he essentially took 800,000 government workers hostage and hobbled important federal functions — including, ironically enough, border security — in hopes of forcing Congress to give in.
Under the federal budget system, the House, Senate and president must periodically agree on spending appropriations for government to operate. When any of those players refuses, government shuts down. Since the 1980s, there have been 10 government shutdowns that furloughed federal employees.
Sometimes, shutdowns result from good-faith budgetary disagreements. But during Barack Obama's presidency, congressional Republicans tried a shutdown to prevent implementation of the Affordable Care Act — a mostly ideological rather than budgetary issue.
Trump's wall had even less legitimacy as a budget-stopping issue. The $5.7 billion he wanted isn't epic by federal budgetary standards, but most people outside Trump's orbit recognized this as a tax-funded appeal to xenophobia within his base, rather than a serious border-security plan.
By using the shutdown as a bargaining chip, Trump left congressional Democrats no option but to dig in. Those who agree to negotiate at knifepoint quickly find that's the only kind of negotiation ever offered to them.
That Trump lost this gambit and came away politically wounded is a win for deterrence. But more is needed.
Two pending legislative measures would prevent future shutdowns by reworking the budget process so government funding continues even when all sides can't agree on new spending plans.
A measure by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., would continue all funding except for the legislative and executive branches, thus hitting the president, Congress and their staffs with the brunt of the effects as a strong incentive for agreement.
A more pragmatic proposal by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, appears to have better prospects. It would continue all government funding at current levels, then gradually reduce it by small amounts until there's agreement. This would apply pressure for an agreement without creating the suffering among federal workers that occurred this past month.
Whatever the plan, Congress should get moving, over Trump's veto if necessary. America's faith in federal government competence is already at dismal lows. When politicians can't fulfill even such basic responsibilities as keeping the doors open and the lights on, that lack of faith is justified.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH