Opportunity Costs of the Shutdown

Petty, shortsighted fights are keeping Congress from focusing on what really matters.

National Journal
Oct. 7, 2013, 7:15 a.m.

Re­mem­ber when im­mig­ra­tion re­form was something that people thought would hap­pen this fall? It will be dif­fi­cult to pass be­fore the le­gis­lat­ive cal­en­dar is up thanks to a short ses­sion in Con­gress packed with mad­den­ing, time-sens­it­ive fisc­al fights.

Im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion, en­ergy re­forms, and for­eign policy goals are just a few of the lofty ef­forts that have been side­lined as Con­gress con­tin­ues to quibble over six-plus weeks of fund­ing and sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand fed­er­al em­ploy­ees wait fur­loughed on the side­lines. Now, with House Speak­er John Boehner say­ing there will no debt-lim­it in­crease and no end to the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down un­less Pres­id­ent Obama ne­go­ti­ates with House Re­pub­lic­ans, and Obama de­mand­ing Re­pub­lic­ans raise the debt ceil­ing and avoid de­fault without con­di­tions, the situ­ation may be about to get a whole lot worse.

Where did things go wrong? Last week, dur­ing a stand­ard ap­pear­ance at a con­struc­tion site in Rock­ville, Md., Obama sug­ges­ted that a series of short-term fed­er­al fund­ing battles are in­ter­fer­ing with the lar­ger task of gov­ern­ing: “House Re­pub­lic­ans need to stop ca­reen­ing from one crisis to an­oth­er in everything they do,” he said. “Have you no­ticed that? Since they’ve taken over the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, we have one of these crises every three months.”

The policy costs of these short-term fund­ing battles were ap­par­ent Thursday when, amid the polit­ic­al tur­moil en­gendered by the gov­ern­ment shut­down, Obama an­nounced that his up­com­ing trip to Asia had been called off and that Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry would travel in his place. The trip, as Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s George Con­don noted re­cently, was cent­ral to the pres­id­ent’s de­sire to do big things in for­eign policy in his second term.

The latest trip can­cel­la­tion “would leave a big geo­pol­it­ic­al mark” in Asia, where loc­al lead­ers are already ques­tion­ing U.S. com­mit­ment to the area, Ern­est Bower of the Pa­cific Part­ners Ini­ti­at­ive at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies told The Wash­ing­ton Post.

“Polit­ic­al real­ity may dic­tate that Pres­id­ent Obama can­not travel to Asia in Oc­to­ber,” he wrote in re­cent op-ed just ahead of the pres­id­ent’s de­cision to abort the trip. “If so, the United States will need to re­cov­er its po­s­i­tion over time, but the dam­age will have been done.”

The pres­id­ent faces set­backs in oth­er areas as well. Im­mig­ra­tion re­form is ex­pec­ted to be dif­fi­cult to pass be­fore the end of the le­gis­lat­ive year as Con­gress con­tin­ues to bick­er over short-term fund­ing. What’s more, the U.S. is set to hit the debt ceil­ing Oct. 17, which will re­quire fur­ther con­gres­sion­al ac­tion to stave off an eco­nom­ic­ally dis­astrous de­fault. That’s all bad news for im­mig­ra­tion-re­form ad­voc­ates, since the longer re­form is delayed the less likely it is that any­thing will pass.

“Time is our en­emy,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Bal­art, R-Fla., who’s craft­ing his own im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion in the House, said on NBC Latino. “If we don’t get it done this year, it gets more dif­fi­cult.”

Con­gress’s squab­bling is hav­ing an ef­fect oth­er places, too. Ac­cord­ing to the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency, the shut­down could delay the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tightened stand­ards for new power plants. Per Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Alex Brown: “The forced cut­back of em­ploy­ees, the agency said in an email, would delay the rules’ pub­lic­a­tion in the Fed­er­al Re­gister, which in turn would set back the 60-day com­ment peri­od and re­quired pub­lic hear­ing be­fore the im­ple­ment­a­tion of new reg­u­la­tions.”

What area of policy will suf­fer next?

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