Several years ago, the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty wrote a piece highlighting “the cumulative effect of … governing by near-death experience.” She explained, “It is as though Washington has had backward evolution – operating as a primitive, leaderless village where petulance passes for governance.”
That was more than six years ago. The near-death experiences not only persist, they’ve grown considerably more common.
As regular readers may know, for most of American history, government shutdowns – even threats of shutdowns – weren’t a credible option available to policymakers. There were some “funding gaps” and “budget shortfalls” in the 1970s, which some might consider shutdowns, but federal officials weren’t furloughed and those brief interruptions didn’t resemble what you and I consider shutdowns.
The incidents became a little more common in the 1980s and 1990s, but the routinization of shutdown politics didn’t begin in earnest until Republicans took control of the House in 2011. Consider what Americans have seen in the years since:
* April 2011: House Republicans threaten a government shutdown unless Democrats accept GOP demands on spending cuts.
* July 2011: Republicans create the first-ever debt-ceiling crisis, threatening to default on the nation’s debts unless Democrats accept GOP demands on spending cuts.
* September 2011: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* April 2012: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* December 2012: Republicans spend months refusing to negotiate in the lead up to the so-called “fiscal cliff.”
* January 2013: Republicans raise the specter of another debt-ceiling crisis.
* September 2013: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* October 2013: Republicans actually shut down the government.
* February 2014: Republicans raise the specter of another debt-ceiling crisis.
* December 2014: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* February 2015: Republicans threaten a Department of Homeland Security shutdown.
* September 2015: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* November 2015: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* September 2016: Republicans threaten another shutdown.
* April 2017: Donald Trump threatens a shutdown, which is only avoided by Congress ignoring his demands.
* January 2018: The government shuts down again, leading to a spirited argument over who’s to blame.
* February 2018: Trump threatens another shutdown.
* March 2018: Trump threatens another shutdown.
* July 2018: Trump threatens another shutdown.
* December 2018: Trump threatens another shutdown.
To be sure, some of these “crises” were more serious than others, but what Americans have been forced to ensure is a seemingly never-ending series of periodic threats, all of which leads us to today, and the prospect of another government shutdown in about 32 hours.
There is no precedent in the American tradition for a governing party careening, over and over again, from one self-imposed crisis to the next. Partisan fights and gridlock may be timeless, but there’s never been an era in which the elected federal officials tried to function this way.
And yet, in an era of Republican radicalization, the crises never seem to stop.