There was a moment during Friday’s failed attempt to avoid a government shutdown that was genuinely inspiring.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sat at his desk on the Senate floor. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham stood near him – desperately trying to find a way to a deal that would keep the government open.
As the conversation between Schumer and Graham continued, other members – of both parties – began to gather around the two men. Within minutes there was a huddle four or five deep all around Schumer, sitting, and Graham, standing.
It looked like this:
Here’s another view:
Pretty damn inspiring, right? It looked like what we all want: Our elected leaders working together to solve problems that face the country. It was like a photo straight out of a civics textbook. Watching it at home on my couch, I felt a twinge of pride. (I am not dead inside, contrary to popular belief.)
The problem, of course, was that it was 11:45 pm – 15 minutes before the government ran out of money and the third government shutdown since 1996 began. It was too little, too late; even as the conversation continued, the clock struck midnight and the shutdown officially began.
This is what governing from crisis to crisis looks like. Weeks – months even! – are spent on political positioning, stalling and doing everything you can to avoid actually talking to people on the other side of the aisle for fear of the political blowback within your party’s base.
The problem with that approach is that the actual work of legislating comes only in paroxysms of panic. Which is totally and completely unsustainable – as evidenced by the 112 continuing resolutions that have been used to keep the government operating since 1998.
Think of it this way: Your job is to make 100 widgets in a year. Rather than making two-ish widgets a week for the entire year, you spend the first three quarters of the year making zero widgets. For the next two months, you up your widget building, but you aren’t working all that hard or spending any extra hours on the job. With one week before your deadline, you still have to make 50 widgets. You work harder, but with one day left, you still have 30 widgets to make. And now your boss is standing over you, looking at his watch every few minutes. Even if you start making widgets faster than you ever have before, it’s a) likely your widgets won’t be of the best quality (because you are rushing) and b) very unlikely you make your deadline.
That’s what you’ve seen happen in Congress over the time between the last continuing resolution on Dec 22, 2017, and last night. Congress eventually started to do its job, but you just can’t make 30 widgets in a single day. Imagine how things might have turned out if they had started having serious conversations – House/Senate, Republicans/Democrats, Trump/Congress – prior to a few days (or even hours!) before the government was shuttering.
My point is this: Yes, the shutdown of the federal government amounts to a total failure of Congress to do its job. (Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander suggested Saturday that shutdowns be prohibited; “It ought to be like chemical warfare, it ought to be banned,” he told CNN’s Tal Kopan.)
But, we can learn from failure. And those moments with Schumer, Graham and 15 or so other senators late Friday night should be the standard to which we hold our elected officials going forward.
Don’t like what the other side is doing or saying? Convince them why they’re wrong! Talk to them! Engage! Don’t retreat into your partisan corners and turn your headphones up as loud as they go.
If we learn nothing from this shutdown, we’ll be destined to repeat (and repeat) (and repeat) it, which is bad for everyone.