There’s an infamous figure looming large in today’s politics, a rogue of sorts, often unfairly maligned. Shunned by the national political establishment, it darts in and out of the shadows, haunting the dreams of D.C.’s professional class. “One day,” it whispers, casually flipping a set of imaginary six-shooters, nonchalant like Doc Holliday, “I shall come again.”
I’m talking, of course, about a good old-fashioned government shutdown.
As you may have heard, the specter of a federal shutdown returned to our nation’s capital this week, reentering the public eye after four long years. The news swept through the halls of Congress like a cold desert wind. Somewhere, a lone coyote howled. A single set of maracas shook. Capitol staffers later swore they could hear that brief minor-key whistle that plays in old Western movies right before the camera zooms in on a rattlesnake or a slack-jawed desert skeleton or the saucy villain from The Three Amigos sauntering into a local saloon.
The catalyst for all this drama, according to President Donald Trump, is $1.6 billion — give or take — for a border wall. This, as you might recall, was the wall that Mexico was going to pay for. Now, understandably, you might be somewhat confused, given that during the campaign, we were assured of Mexico’s funding of the wall approximately 6,256,765 times. “Why shut down the government?” you might be asking. “Why not just telephone Mexico? Also, don’t 56 percent of Americans oppose the wall altogether, according to the latest Rasmussen poll?” Well, whatever. Details, details.
In summary, if the Great Wall government shutdown were to happen, it would be a pretty goofy government shutdown — and it would also continue to give government shutdowns a bad name. This is unfortunate, because in this day and age, government shutdowns might just be the hero we need.
Ask any longtime politician about a government shutdown, and odds are the response will range from peeved dismissal to unmitigated horror. Government shutdowns, we are told, will result in mass chaos, disorder, and tragedy. Never mind that in most shutdowns, the majority of the government keeps humming. No, the inner bureaucratic machinations of Washington D.C. are just too valuable to our great nation to lose, we are told, even for a week.
Even Republicans sing the tune. Most who were asked about the shutdown this week offered a variation on this statement from Senator Jeff Flake: “We don’t need a government shutdown. That never ends well.”
How would we ever make it alone, out in the hinterlands, for days without the National Endowment for the Arts?
Now, to be fair, Flake and others are hedging on this particular shutdown, which, as I noted earlier, is almost spectacularly weird. But it “never ends well?” Come on. Let’s look back to the last federal government shutdown, in 2013, which churned forth a record amount of media panic, paired with a bumper crop of inside-the-Beltway weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Republicans, we were told, would never regain the political capital they foolishly squandered while fighting over Obamacare funding. Those 16 days, we were told, would be marked with misery: D.C. sits idly while the “nation suffers,” as the New York Daily News blasted on its front page. How would middle America possibly survive without its betters in D.C.? How would we ever make it alone, out in the hinterlands, for days without the National Endowment for the Arts? Who would cheerfully throw our money into various mysterious pet projects that would never see the light of day?
Spoiler alert: America survived. Republicans ultimately recovered from their post-shutdown poll dip and went on to take back the Senate. The nation, you’ll be relieved to know, dodged mass tragedy. D.C. went back to its usual business of self-importance, back-slapping, business-card swapping, and squandering money. But perhaps something important happened as well: Maybe, just maybe, more than a few Americans realized that many government officials are full of hot air — and that expansive government bureaucracies aren’t as important as they’d like you to think.
Unfortunately, when the government winds don’t blow their way, many people call for . . . wait for it . . . more government. “As long as my team’s in charge, it will be okay,” the assumption goes. News flash: That’s a bad strategy. Nevertheless, in today’s combative political arena, so it goes. You can see it in the sudden rash of calls to “rethink” free speech. You can see it in the bizarre paeans to communism — “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors,” for instance, or “‘Star Trek’ and Its Debt to Revolutionary Socialism” — that keep popping up at the New York Times. (No, those headlines are not made up.)
As for the latest episode in the grand historic saga of government shutdowns, we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, take heart: Here in Texas, the legislature is shut down every other year — and that’s by design. Somehow, we all manage to survive.