Avoid future shutdowns by making the president and Congress share the pain

As the current shutdown shows, the extended closure of major portions of the U.S. government by one branch as leverage in a political fight inflicts unacceptable damage on the lives of Americans and on the very fabric of American democracy. For over a month now, government workers — like those who insure safe air travel, investigate crimes and guard our borders — have been compelled to work without pay and seemingly without any legal recourse to oppose their condition.

At a minimum, any president or congress that imposes a government shutdown like the current one should pay immediate and severe penalties in the future. Only then can disasters like the present one be avoided.

The president and Congress are not likely to put it to a national referendum, but any future shutdown should automatically — by law — include a pay and benefits freeze for the president, White House staff, the executive office of the president, and members of Congress and their staffs equal to that imposed on government workers.

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Services, like travel on military aircraft and other job-related benefits, should also be prohibited. The only exception would be a national emergency agreed by the president and Congress.

Such a proposal should also ban the forced employment of unpaid government workers for any longer than two weeks without a joint declaration of a national emergency. 

Similar laws should be on the books in every state government as well.

Such a proposal is raw populism, but if it could be put to a national ballot, I would wager it would get 90 percent of the votes in both parties. “What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander,” as the saying goes.   

Throwing the lives of 800,000 working Americans into chaos as hostages to a policy stalemate is the kind of crude and cruel political obstruction that turns so many people against Washington and the politicians who run it. The shutdown is not leadership of the nation. It is a failure of leadership. 

Since 1976 when congress established the federal government budget process, government shutdowns have occurred twenty-one times and have happened in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The current shutdown is Trump’s second in two years, but the current one is the most serious in U.S. history. As the world’s premier democracy, what kind of example does a political shutdown set for the rest of the world, much less the lesson it gives to American kids?

A shutdown is becoming a common feature of gridlock in Washington, a symbol of an unwillingness to compromise — and of a weak presidency. Unfortunately for the affected government workers and the American public, any penalty for a shutdown must wait for the next election. 

Penalties should be much quicker and more severe than that.

Today, both sides are unwilling to give an inch. Both sides think they are winning or that the public will forget about this by the 2020 election. 

The entire political system in the United States, including Democrats in congress, are also likely to pay a political price for this debacle. But Trump as president may suffer the most in the long-run because this is such a clear failure of national leadership.

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Further, the House of Representatives will almost certainly launch impeachment proceedings against Trump as soon as the Mueller investigation is complete. When that happens, Trump will need every ounce of public support he can muster to counter what could be devastating allegations and evidence against him. As the shutdown goes on with no end in sight, this unwillingness to open the government causes the public to question more Trump’s fitness to serve.

But in the future, the issue of whether one branch should be able to shut down the government because it cannot win a political battle is bigger than Trump and Pelosi. It is an issue about whether this political tactic should be allowed to disrupt the legitimate functions of the government.

While it may not be possible to rule shutdowns out completely, at a minimum, the executive and legislative branch leaders and their staff should suffer severe and rapid penalties if either resorts to this kind of dysfunctional policy.

If you don’t believe it, ask the public.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."