Lessons from the Shutdown: Four Bargaining Tips Congress Should’ve Known Already


The Lessons from the Shutdown Series examines the costs and consequences of the recent shutdown and debt ceiling fights. In this piece, Bill Galston discusses basic issues of legislative bargaining and points to ways in which Congress can learn from their recent crisis.

What did we learn from the shutdown?  Nothing we shouldn’t have known already.  But as George Orwell once remarked, there are sorry times when restating the obvious is a duty, and this is one of them.

Lesson 1: not everything is negotiable 

There was never a chance that President Obama would delay or modify the signature legislative achievement of his administration.  Experienced Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell understood that, and Republicans who didn’t were fooling themselves.

Lesson 2: there’s a big difference between a threat and a bluff 

The White House and the financial markets both assumed—correctly—that at the end of the day, House Speaker John Boehner would be unwilling to trigger a debt default.  Because he wasn’t willing to risk default, he had no leverage and was forced to allow a vote on a resolution that gave the Republicans almost nothing in return for ending the shutdown and raising the debt ceiling.

Lesson 3: smart politicians can help themselves even when they lose 

Senator Ted Cruz’s futile quasi-filibuster antagonized his colleagues from both parties and accomplished nothing legislatively, but it propelled him into the lead among the Tea Party rank and file.  John Boehner’s acquiescence in what he knew was a doomed strategy ended up strengthening his standing in his restive caucus and allowed him to bring a white-flag bill to the floor without undermining his speakership.  

Lesson 4: good institutions don’t ensure good outcomes, but bad institutions increase the odds of bad ones

My colleague Phil Wallach has offered compelling arguments against the debt ceiling.  Procedures that allow government shutdowns are just as misguided.  At the beginning of this year, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the “End Government Shutdowns” Act, which provides for automatic continuing resolutions for the first 120 days after any failure to enact appropriations bills by the beginning of the fiscal year.  After 120 days, the spending level would be decreased by 1 percent for each subsequent 90 days until the necessary appropriations bills were passed.

While there’s room for argument about the details, the thrust of Portman’s proposal represents plain common sense.  It’s time for Congress to eliminate—once and for all—the possibility of government shutdowns, which do nothing except antagonize the people, weaken consumer and business confidence, and slow economic growth and job creation.