Just when you thought the dysfunction in Congress couldn’t get any worse—it did. The mere possibility that the Department of Homeland Security may shut down for lack of funding on Friday night should send shivers down the spine of every American who heads to the airport next week. In a world where we’ve moved from the dreadful Al Qaeda to the horrific ISIL and where European cities like Paris have been subjected to the slaughter of innocents, the decision by the Republican leadership to hold up funding for the department which guards our borders, because they disagree with President Obama’s immigration policy is, frankly, unbelievable.
The folly of this strategy is enormous. The House Republicans are fooling themselves into thinking that the damage won’t be great because most of the over 200,000 DHS employees are “essential.” Lest you think that that’s some sort of compliment, “essential” in this context means that they have to go to work and they don’t get paid. So expect that TSA agent at the airport to be even less cheery than usual and don’t even think about the mistakes that could be made by that person running the scanner who is worried about how they will buy groceries with no pay check. As the shutdown goes on the recruitment and training of new agents in a department with high turnover will suffer as will cyber-security, aid to local police departments and all the critical support and backup that the men and women on the front lines need. And God forbid that we have a major natural disaster because FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) would be affected as well.
As the actual and the political costs of this strategy dawn on House Republicans they will be forced to negotiate. But negotiation is a skill that seems to have eluded most of this generation of House members. Nonetheless, there are a few exceptions. Recently the award winning journalist Jill Lawrence did a study for Brookings titled “Profiles in negotiation: The Murray-Ryan budget deal.” Congressman Paul Ryan (R. WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D. WA) negotiated the 2013 budget deal that ended a particularly embarrassing episode in congressional history—in which Congress closed down the government and took the nation to the edge of default.
As Lawrence points out, the two lawmakers “personally embodied the gulf between their parties…Ryan earned a zero rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and Murray earned the same from the American Conservative Union.” So how did they manage to break the impasse?& As Lawrence tells the story the two managed to establish a personal level of trust, they managed to conduct their negotiations in private and outside of Washington. They gave up the hope for a “grand bargain” that would settle everything but they managed to declare limited ideological victories.
The Murray-Ryan budget deal has a lot of relevance to today’s situation. If, in fact, the final outcome today is to provide funding for three weeks in order to negotiate, the negotiators should start by reading the Murray-Ryan case study. Or, even better, maybe they should just hand it over to Murray and Ryan? They seem to be the only ones around who have not lost the art of negotiation.