Two men stand on the plaza of the U.S. Capitol Building as storm clouds fill the sky, June 13, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty

The routinization of ‘governing by near-death experience’

I remember several years ago the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty had a piece highlighting “the cumulative effect of … governing by near-death experience.” She added, “It is as though Washington has had backward evolution – operating as a primitive, leaderless village where petulance passes for governance.”

That was in 2013. The near-death experiences persist.

For most of American history, government shutdowns – even threats of shutdowns – weren’t a credible option available to policymakers. There were some “funding gaps” 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.

* 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.

To be sure, some of these “crises” were more serious than others, but what Americans have seen consistently is this never-ending series of periodic threats, all of which leads us to today, and the prospect of another government shutdown in about 13 hours.

The Washington Post  reported overnight that this latest impasse has “raised deeper questions about the GOP’s capacity – one year into the Trump administration – to govern.”

Never before has the government experienced a furlough of federal employees when a single party controls both the White House and Congress, but that’s what will happen after midnight Friday if a spending bill fails to pass Congress.

While Democrats criticized Republicans for failing to do what was necessary to win their support to keep the government open – a responsibility that has historically fallen to the party in charge – even some Republicans acknowledged there had been a profound breakdown in how Washington is run.

The article quoted Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) saying, “We have one real responsibility here, and that’s to keep the government funded. There’s a lot of stuff we want to do or we’d like to do, but there’s one thing we must do and that’s to pass a budget and keep the government funded. And it is very frustrating that simple, basic task has become such a herculean effort.”

I continue to hope that the political world, prone to cynicism, doesn’t just accept this as a new normal. 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.

As longtime readers know, partisan bickering and gridlock may be timeless, but there’s never been an era in which the United States Congress tried to function this way.

And yet, in an era of Republican radicalization, the crises never seem to stop.

Government Shutdowns

The routinization of 'governing by near-death experience'