After the January 28 Waterways Journal went to press, the White House and Congress finally agreed on a measure to temporarily end the partial shutdown of government—for three weeks, at least—while the two sides continue talking on a more permanent solution to the issues that prompted it. Meanwhile the president is threatening to renew the shutdown if his demand for a border wall is not met, even though some experts argue that he can find the money without one, or without using his emergency powers.
But even if a resolution is found, the results of the 35-day partial shutdown, the longest in our history, will linger. In our own industry, the National Maritime Center was forced to extend deadlines through May for merchant mariner credentials that were set to expire in December, January and February. Coast Guard personnel who could not make travel plans during the shutdown (and who were working without pay to boot) may still not be able to participate in valuable industry forums.
This publication takes no position on the border wall dispute between President Donald Trump and Democrats that triggered the shutdown this time around. But as a tactic, shutdowns hurt everyone. Partisans can dispute poll numbers and argue whether the president or congressional Democrats came off worse. But no one can argue that anyone was helped politically. A lot of innocent workers, including Coast Guard members, were collateral damage.
It’s not as if there were no previous lessons about the futility of shutdowns. As the New York Times pointed out in an editorial, “It [the shutdown tactic] didn’t work for Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and House conservatives in 2013, or for Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and fellow Democrats early in 2018 when they relented on a shutdown after just three days.” The Times agreed with the Wall Street Journal, which editorialized in favor of a compromise on the wall to end the shutdown.
The costs of the shutdown have given rise to calls for measures from Congress that will prevent anything like that from happening again. Those calls come from figures in both parties. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said, “Shutting down the government should be as off limits in budget negotiations as chemical warfare is in real warfare.”
A plan sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a persistent critic of shutdowns, would fund agencies at previous levels in events of a budget or other dispute. To get the parties talking, it would reduce agency funding by 1 percent after 120 days and by a further 1 percent after another 90 days. It’s a bill Portman has introduced before, but maybe this time it will get some traction.
Sen. Mark Warner (D.-Va.) has another, more tongue-in-cheek proposal: The Stop Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage in the Coming Years or Stop Stupidity Act. In the event of a budget impasse, it would cut only the funding of Congress and the White House while continuing to fund agencies in the event of a failure to pass funding legislation.
It’s well within Congress’ authority (and not a dereliction of it, as some believe) to pass measures that would continue government funding at previous levels in the event of a budget impasse. Congress did something similar when it passed the “sequester” law, a series of automatic mandated spending cuts, to try to compel a budget agreement in 2013. While the sequester laws proved not to be a long-term structural solution to budget disputes, they did keep the government running and saved taxpayers some money.
Whichever version is passed—and we hope one is—we agree with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who said, “This never should have happened.”