Parts of the federal government closed their doors Tuesday. It is too soon to know how long this will last or how deeply it will impact taxpaying citizens.
It is not too soon to know that government by ultimatum — agree with me on my issue or else — is no way to run a railroad.
Today, the issue is the Affordable Care Act. The law that was passed in 2010 has some troubling aspects, and the first day of its new insurance marketplace had its share of problems.
Republican critics have argued that the public doesn’t want it and that it was worth refusing to fund the government to block it. The Republicans’ first efforts were to repeal the law, then to defund it and finally to delay it. Democrats rejected all.
But the government shutdown didn’t stop it. Logging onto HealthCare.gov brought this message Tuesday: “The Health Insurance Marketplace is Open!”
The bigger issue isn’t about the merits of Obamacare. It’s about governing.
Despite mounting federal debt, Congress for several years has been unable to engage in an orderly budgeting process. It relies instead on what the Wall Street Journal described as “last-minute agreements that delay decisions and fund the government for weeks or months at a time.” Indeed, the spending bills in the current fight would fund the government only through Nov. 15 or Dec. 15, depending on which chamber’s version were passed.
Add in the periodic need to approve more borrowing — to pay obligations already OK’d by a Congress that just can’t say no — and the opportunities to issue make-or-break ultimatums multiply.
Throughout the nation’s history, political parties have disagreed, and sharply, and different parties have controlled different chambers of the Congress and the White House. Since World War II, every president but three had to deal with at least one house of Congress that was controlled by the other party at some point in their terms.
Presidents must engage with congressional leaders, not lecture them from press conference podiums. Battles over how much to spend and on what are part of legislating. But closing down the government when one party in one chamber doesn’t get its way sets a reckless precedent.
In some election down the road, the tables will turn. A Republican will occupy the White House and Democrats will control only one half of Congress.
What would happen if that Democratic House refuses to keep government doors open unless the Republican Senate and president agree to, for example, tougher background checks for gun purchases?
Throughout this fight, Republicans and Democrats have insisted that they wanted to avoid a shutdown. They didn’t, and now each side is quick to point fingers at the other. It is a failure of leadership by both.