Republicans May Have Finally Learned Their Lesson

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

President Donald Trump walks back to the Oval Office after speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House. 

When Donald Trump says that something he built, accomplished, or attached his name to was the most spectacular example of that thing that there ever was, he's usually lying. But not this time: The government shutdown that ended on Friday when he finally realized he was losing was in fact the longest in American history, and therefore in all likelihood the most consequential. It brought a huge amount of suffering down on government workers (who will at least get their back pay) as well as government contractors (who won't) and those whose businesses depend on government workers (ditto). It deprived people across the country of important services. It cut economic growth. It increased backlogs in places like immigration courts and the IRS. It will make it harder to recruit good people to work for the federal government.

So while every prior government shutdown was bad, Trump can honestly claim that his was the worst by far. But there just may be a positive result of all that misery and difficulty: This could become the last government shutdown.

In its early days, Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic wrote an article reviving an old and rather obscure idea to prevent government shutdowns: the automatic continuing resolution. She explained:

Right now, when Congress cannot agree on how to spend money, it passes a continuing resolution, or CR, which continues federal agencies’ financing for a given period of time. Automatic CRs would absolve Congress from the responsibility of passing new CRs, preventing both quick financing lapses and big, painful shutdowns.

The move would prevent the Senate from shutting down the government over disagreements with the House, Republicans from shutting down the government over disagreements with Democrats, and the White House from shutting down the government over disagreements with Congress. Money would just keep flowing at a steady rate, until Congress were to pass a formal budget or appropriations bill and the president were to sign it.

It could have some negative consequences; for instance, a party happy with current funding levels could just refuse to allow a budget to pass and thereby keep everything the way it is for as long as it wants. But is that really worse than what we just went through?

While the idea had been floated before, right now it has real momentum. Democratic and Republican senators have introduced new bills to create an automatic CR. Senator Mark Warner's is colorfully titled Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years, or the Stop STUPIDITY Act (yes, there's an extra "C," but cut him some slack; this kind of bill naming is hard).

It's particularly interesting to see at least some Republicans as eager to create an automatic CR as Democrats, but it suggests they may have finally learned their lesson. All our recent shutdowns have come about because Republicans made demands they knew Democrats would find unacceptable, and every time they believed they could hold out longer than their opponents. After all, Democrats are the ones who care whether government functions properly, so they'd give in first, wouldn't they? The logic wasn't crazy, but every time—whether it was Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, or Donald Trump leading the shutdown—Republicans failed to predict the political damage they'd suffer. Americans know who the anti-government party is, and they learned enough about what was happening to correctly assign blame.

It's a wonder that we never got around to passing an automatic CR before, but sometimes you have to hit bottom before you're willing to change. And for Republicans, this really was a lesson that would be hard not to learn. As the shutdown wore on, with each passing day they took more and more political damage in a fight that they never wanted in the first place. As Senator Lisa Murkowski told The Washington Post, "What I have heard from our conference is a greater number of voices that are saying, 'Hey, this does not work so well. This is not a tool that we should be using.'"

But they felt they had to stand behind the president—up to a point. Though they were suffering already as the news was filled with stories of federal workers unable to pay their rent and heading to food banks, things got really bad when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross expressed his bewilderment at why the workers didn't just take out loans, and President Trump followed up by offering his ludicrous belief that banks and grocery stores would "work along" with furloughed workers by letting them pay at a later date. That's how it works, right?

Republicans are never going to stop representing the interests of the wealthy, but at least some of them seem to realize that they can't trust their colleagues not to be so terrible at hiding their contempt for the plodding masses who didn't have the foresight to be born rich. And by now they should have learned that shutting down the government never works out well for them. Not only did they get blamed by the public in poll after poll (and properly so), the shutdown made it all the harder for Trump to make the fantastical claim that life in America since his election has been unmitigated bliss (when our families aren't being murdered by immigrants, that is). A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows 63 percent of Americans saying the country is on the wrong track, which isn't what a president thinking about his reelection campaign wants to hear.

So it might just be possible to get the votes in Congress to make future shutdowns impossible, and Trump—who would no doubt prefer not to go through this again, having been so roundly bested by Nancy Pelosi—would probably sign it.

And while they're at it, they ought to eliminate the debt ceiling, too. Who knows—the result of this miserable episode could be a government less susceptible to the destructive whims of a toddler president and a reckless Republican Party. Wouldn't that be something.

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