Five Lessons That Never Seem to be Learned From Shutting Down the Government

The Washington Post, December 28, 2018


When budget negotiations broke down between President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress in late 1995, a shutdown of the federal government occurred during the Christmas holidays. Republicans in the House, under Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), insisted on greater savings and cuts from Medicare. Clinton refused. As the president’s chief of staff, it was obvious to me that the longer the shutdown went on, the more the public blamed the Republicans. On Jan. 6, 1996, the Republicans relented when Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS), the majority leader, passed the appropriations bills without the cut to Medicare and the House went along. But the political damage was done.

Since that time, the leaders of both parties have recognized that shutdowns are a bad way to do the country’s business. And yet, time and time again, the lessons from those shutdowns are never learned. Today, parts of the federal government again are shut down during the Christmas season, and the same mistakes are being made — particularly by the president and the Republican majority in Congress. Here are the lessons that never seem to be learned:

Harming people never works. Some 800,000 federal employees have either been furloughed or continue to work without pay. They are the innocent victims of the political conflict, but they are the ones paying the price — in the form of growing anxieties and fears that come with no paychecks. Millions of other Americans are affected by the lack of services from the closure of nine departments and several government agencies their tax dollars help support. The purpose of government is not to harm its citizens but to protect them.

The more you blame others, the more the public blames you. The American people are fully aware of who is primarily responsible for this shutdown. President Trump made very clear that he would be honored to shut down the government. At the urging of conservative voices outside the government, the president reversed his decision to accept a short-term extension of funding and, instead, demanded a new measure with $5 billion for his border wall. At that, the Democrats balked. The more the president tweets that Democrats are now to blame, and that the only thing that matters is the $5 billion for his wall, the more the public will hold him responsible.

Negotiations are impossible without trust. The key to governing in our democracy is mutual trust. You must be able to rely on the word of those in the other party that they will do what they agree to do. Unfortunately, the president keeps changing his mind. He is not clear about whether he wants a “beautiful wall” or “aesthetically pleasing steel slats.” The Democrats have agreed that they will agree to more funding for “border security,” but not for a concrete wall. Surely, there is room for compromise — Democrats and Republicans have already agreed to $1.7 billion allocated during the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years for physical barriers along the border. Perhaps additional funding for different types of fencing in exchange for a fix to help the “dreamers,” young people brought to this country illegally as children, is another possibility. But even then, it is difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at any deal when so few believe the president will stand by any agreement.

Never negotiate in public. The talks to avert a shutdown got off to a terrible start when the president, during an Oval Office meeting with likely incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), began arguing his position in front of White House reporters. That forced the Democrats to publicly counter his positions. Once the president stated that he would be honored to shut down the government, the door to negotiations, for all intents and purposes, closed. In all the negotiations on the budget that I took part in as both House Budget Committee chairman and the director of the Office of Management and Budget, not one took place in front of the media. Public shouting matches usually guarantee failure.

If the president fails, Congress must lead. The Constitution placed the power of the purse in the hands of Congress. Successful presidents have been smart enough to know that if they want funds for a particular purpose, they have to work with Congress. In the absence of presidential leadership, it rests with Congress to do what is necessary to end this shutdown. When the House reconvenes, its new Democratic majority will likely pass a short-term extension to fund the government. Under any circumstances, the Senate should agree on a bipartisan extension of funding. The president may veto it, but it will damage him, his presidency and the country.

In our democracy, we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If leadership is willing to take the risks that come with the responsibility of power, we can avoid crisis. If not, we will inevitably govern by crisis. There are no winners in a prolonged shutdown. As the midterm elections made clear — those who fail the nation will not only lose the trust of the people, they will likely lose the next election.

Leon Panetta was budget director and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and defense secretary and CIA director under President Barack Obama. He served eight terms in Congress representing California.