March 18, 2018
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Congress can easily avoid shutdowns. Here’s why it doesn’t.

Jose Luis Magana | AP
Jose Luis Magana | AP
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, walks to the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, during the second day of the federal shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Jan. 21, 2018.
By Fred Barbash, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A government shutdown is like the weather. Everyone talks about it but nobody does anything about it.

There’s one big difference between the weather and shutdown, however. Nobody can do anything about the weather while members of Congress can easily avoid shutdowns. Indeed, they usually do, with only four “true” shutdowns in modern times according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, 18 short “funding gaps,” but lots of continuing spending resolutions that have avoided them — at least 106 times since fiscal 1997.

If they can prevent shutdowns most of the time then, why not all the time? They all say they hate them. The answer, according to the bulk of the evidence, is that there’s largely no pain at the polls for most members.

But there may be rewards.

[Senate talks fall short, shutdown extends into workweek]

Like members of Congress, voters say they hate shutdowns, polls show. But by Election Day, they have demonstrated that they don’t really care.

Particularly as the electorate has become more polarized around issues such as taxes, health care and immigration, members are rewarded by their bases for fighting the good fight, for taking a stand, according to studies. And sometimes, the standoff offers elected officials in Washington leverage, their only chance to demonstrate their unyielding commitment to a particular cause and maybe even to score a win, however small.

That’s because wins and leverage are hard to come by in today’s “broken” Congress, where meaningful legislation on major issues is such a rarity.

Nobody knows this better than Tom Davis, the former Republican House member from Northern Virginia who served in the House for seven terms before leaving Congress in 2008. With thousands of federal employees in his district Davis and a few other members tried repeatedly to pass legislation that would forever avoid government shutdowns. When Congress failed to reach agreement on spending by the time the clock ran out, Davis’ proposal would have triggered a default spending law to keep the government up and running, an automatic continuing resolution. (A similar proposal was introduced in this session of Congress by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker.)

Despite its simplicity, the proposal never got serious consideration, Davis told The Washington Post Sunday night. “The problem is that it takes away the ability of one side to blackmail the other side. That’s why it never goes anywhere.”

And this “is the way the leadership wants it,” he said. “They like the brinkmanship. … At the end of the day, most members don’t care if the government shuts down if it helps get them to a better place” on some specific issue of importance to their base, he said.

Consider, he said, the Democratic insistence on using the government shutdown to try to win extension of the “Dreamers” program, known officially as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. “The political calculation here,” Davis said, is that “you have a president with high negatives and a Democratic base itching for a fight” over immigration.

[Shutdown could hurt Democrats seeking re-election in Trump states]

Using an unrelated spending bill as leverage, particularly in such a theatrical, high-profile way, helps many Democrats. “In the long term, your base sees you as a champion. You’ve drawn a stark line,” just as Republicans did in 2013 when the government shut down for 17 days over their insistence that President Barack Obama yield ground on his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act.

It’s a terrible way to do business, Davis said. But “before you’re too critical of them, remember it’s the only leverage they have, particularly now that the legislative process is so broken and appropriations is the only thing that moves.”

“Deadlines typically force action,” Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution, told The Post in an email. That’s why we call these spending bills ‘must-pass’ measures.” It’s not necessarily the case that “Congress likes shutdowns,” she added. Rather, it’s “a failure of the system rather than a choice of one or both parties.”

Shutdowns are all about “branding” for members, write political scientists Andreu Casas and John Wilkerson, who closely studied the 2013 shutdown for the messages members tried to communicate during and after the event. Those in safe districts, where Obamacare was especially unpopular, used their militance to highlight their die-hard opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

“Conservative Republicans were elated” with the shutdown, Casas and Wilkerson write, seeing it “as their best opportunity to defund the Affordable Care Act.”

In less safe districts, where a shutdown might be more unpopular than Obamacare, Republicans highlighted their efforts to resolve the impasse.

The best example of branding derived from a shutdown is probably the case of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. His 24-hour speech before the 2013 shutdown, during which he read “Green Eggs and Ham” to his daughters on C-SPAN, helped make the otherwise obscure freshman a national figure, loathed and ridiculed by many but lionized by the most fervent opponents of the Affordable Care Act. It turned him into a plausible, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, contender for the 2016 presidential nomination.

To many conservatives, The Post’s David Fahrenthold and Kate Zezima wrote, “the shutdown signaled the depth of Cruz’s commitment to rein in government.”

[Signs of government shutdown spotty but symbolic]

In fact, once the shouting has died down, millions of Americans really didn’t care about that shutdown, legal scholars David Scott Louk and David Gamage write in another study after the 2013 event, in which they, like Davis, proposed a default mechanism to prevent such closures.

“Even widespread dissatisfaction with government shutdowns does not necessarily translate into effective voter disciplining of politicians,” they wrote.

Both parties — and especially the Republican Party — are increasingly driven by the more partisan segments of their membership. Indeed, three months after the 2013 shutdown, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that Republican voters supported the tea party at the same rate after the shutdown as before it, signaling that even as a majority of Americans disapproved of the Republican tactics that led to the shutdown, the core GOP constituency continued to show largely unwavering support for the party’s most anti-tax politicians.

“A look back at previous shutdowns suggests that there could be a clear immediate political reaction, but that those effects are likely to fade over time,” as Harry Enten wrote on Jan. 20 for FiveThirtyEight. “Prior shutdowns haven’t had long-term electoral implications,” he wrote, noting that in the congressional election of 1996, just a month after the end of that year’s shutdown, Republicans held their majorities in both the House and Senate.

“Basically, America put the same people who shut the government down back in office.”

The same proved true the 2013 shutdown, which reportedly cost the economy at least $24 billion, or half a percentage point of GDP, but cost Republicans nothing.

While polls showed voters largely blaming Republicans, the same party won control of the Senate, taking Democratic seats in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia, and increased its majority in the House to the largest since World War II.

“It was their highest performance in an off-year election since 1928,” Davis said. “The 2013 shutdown had no effect at all.”

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