Tom Clyde: High drama shutdown
Last week’s shutdown of the federal government was as strange as any move Sundance served up. The mess has become so institutionalized that it’s easy to forget what it’s about. The primary function of Congress is to adopt a budget for the federal government. The federal budget, like your own, is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to priorities. If you want to travel to Europe this summer, but you spend all your money on a kitchen remodel, you are likely to be disappointed. Aligning your spending with your priorities leads to getting what you want.
So Congress is supposed to work out the federal budget. Elections change the priorities, and depending on who got elected, we might spend more on highways or pollution control, or more on military hardware and border patrol. Those priorities shift around because they are supposed to, based on who gets elected. Congress hasn’t adopted a normal budget in decades. They get into quarrels over priorities, and if one congressman can’t get the kitchen remodel, the other isn’t going to get the new car. Then they throw parliamentary tantrums like two-year-olds. We actually pay them to do this.
Because Congress won’t do its most basic job, the government operates on short term continuing resolutions, almost indefinitely. There are a few little tweaks here and there, but mostly, they courageously vote to keep doing whatever we did last year for a while longer. There really aren’t any priorities.
The drama in Congress last week was over another short term continuing resolution so they could avoid adopting a budget that was supposed to have been in place last October. The Democrats said they would only vote to keep avoiding adopting a proper budget if they could attach a bill that addressed the status of immigrants who were brought into the country as children. Their parents may have been “illegals” or whatever the current politically correct term is, but the kids were just along for the ride. Obama addressed that situation administratively, which freaked the Republicans out. Trump reversed the Obama rule, and said Congress had to adopt a real statute on it by March.
The actual bill isn’t controversial, but the Republicans won’t let it come to the floor for a vote. They want to connect solving the DACA problem to billions in funding for the wall on the Mexican border (that Mexico was going to pay for, according to the President). And everything went to pieces.
Cable TV covered the shutdown with breathless urgency. It was portrayed as a steel-cage grudge match between Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell, two of the most boring and unappealing people imaginable. I was captivated by the coverage. It became a parody of news. Never have so many covered so little for so long. When the vote on Friday failed, the government was out of money, and the lights went out. It happened over a weekend, so in reality, nobody noticed. It lacked impact.
There was supposed to be another vote late Sunday night. I tuned in to see what was happening. MSNBC had run through their entire bench of on-air people. There was nobody left at midnight Sunday. They normally run infomercials that time of night, but they were live. The anchor was an intern, and the panel of experts was three random people pulled in off the street and the cashier from the cafeteria.
With great drama, the vote was delayed until Monday morning. It would be Tuesday, at the earliest, that a bill could get through the Senate, the House, and be signed by the president. Holy cats, the government is closed. For one whole workday. Anarchy!
Except it wasn’t. A few national parks were closed, but mostly they stayed open with limited services. The gift shop closed at the visitor’s center. Oh, the humanity. By Tuesday morning, everything was back to normal. The Democrats caved, which they always do. Congress boldly enacted another temporary patch, dodging their responsibility until Feb. 8, when the money runs out again and it all blows up.
The theory is that this time is different. This week, there will be a big kumbaya moment. All our problems will be solved in two weeks. Or the government will run out of money on February 8.
If it’s worth shutting things down, let’s really shut things down. Close air traffic control and the TSA. Ground the planes. Pull the meat inspectors out and let the grocery stores run out of bacon. That tax cut you were expecting won’t happen if the clerks at the IRS aren’t working to figure out the new withholding rates.
It probably will take that kind of trainwreck to get people angry enough at Congress to throw the bums out in November. But it would be worth it.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.