Waiting for a Shutdown to End in Disaster

Internal Revenue Service employees call for an end of the partial shutdown of the federal government in front of the Statehouse in Boston Jan. 17.

Internal Revenue Service employees call for an end of the partial shutdown of the federal government in front of the Statehouse in Boston Jan. 17. Steven Senne/AP

Aides on Capitol Hill fear that a dramatic government failure may be the only thing to force President Trump and the Democrats back to the table.

As the longest government shutdown in American history lurches toward its fifth week, a grim but growing consensus has begun to emerge on Capitol Hill: There may be no way out of this mess until something disastrous happens.

This is, of course, not a sentiment lawmakers are eager to share on the record. But in interviews this week with congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle (whom I granted anonymity in exchange for candor), I heard the same morbid idea expressed again and again.

The basic theory—explained to me between weary sighs and defeated shrugs—goes like this: Washington is at an impasse that looks increasingly unbreakable. President Donald Trump is dug in; so is Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Democrats have public opinion on their side, but the president is focused on his conservative base. For a deal to shake loose in this environment, it may require a failure of government so dramatic, so shocking, as to galvanize public outrage and force the two parties back to the negotiating table.

In these interviews, I heard an array of macabre hypotheticals—from airplane crashes to food-safety scares, TSA strikes to terrorist incidents. But the one theme that ran through every conversation was a sense that the current political dynamics won’t change until voters get a lot angrier.

“This is all pageantry,” a Democratic House aide said of the posturing by Trump and Congress. “It’s going to take a big national event to move things. I mean, we’re at a standstill.”

One senior Republican Senate staffer told me he could envision the shutdown lasting until March, when federal funding dries up for food stamps—a crisis that would be hard for Washington to ignore. “Not only are there going to be a lot of hungry families,” he said, “but there are going to be a lot of Walmarts and Safeways and Krogers that are missing revenue.”

Others warned of potential flash points in America’s airports, where TSA agents and air-traffic controllers have already been working without pay for weeks. According to the Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, some Republican lawmakers close to the White House have privately concluded that the shutdown won’t end until TSA employees stay home and Americans “get furious about their flights.”

On a similar—if darker—note, I spoke to one congressional staffer who wondered aloud whether it might take a stressed-out air-traffic controller causing a plane crash to bring an end to the shutdown. And several aides worried that some kind of terrorist incident would end up serving as the catalyst to get the government up and running again.

Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who spent more than a decade working in Congress, told me he could imagine the shutdown ending if the reported lapse in inspections from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prompted a widespread food-safety scare. “We saw what happened with romaine lettuce a few weeks ago,” he said. “You give that same kind of scare to a ranch in California, and all of a sudden not only do everyone’s beef prices go up, but there’s a mass panic.”

Of course, for many of the 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed for weeks—struggling to scrape together rent payments and child-care money—the gridlock gripping Washington probably feels disastrous enough already. They don’t need a big, scary symbol of disarray to highlight the problem; they need their elected officials to do their jobs. “Congress and the Trump administration should not have to wait for serious impacts to reverberate across the country for there to be action on this,” Heye said.

But if this latest episode of Washington dysfunction has veered at times toward Veep-ish absurdity, it is also emblematic of a more consequential chaos that defines the Trump era.

If one thing unites most Republicans and Democrats on the Hill these days, it’s that there is little use in trying to negotiate in good faith with the Trump White House. The president is simply too volatile, too prone to change his mind in a fit of pique, too apt to reverse course after watching Fox News. It was Trump, after all, who abruptly backed out of an agreed-upon budget deal last month after right-wing media figures such as Ann Coulter started clamoring for border-wall funding.

Now that he’s in the fight, Trump seems to be relishing the opportunities for showmanship that the shutdown affords him. Why bother governing—a job he has rarely seemed to like—when he can spend all day doling out Quarter Pounders to college-football players, plotting publicity stunts, and trading barbs with political enemies? As long as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stays in line—and he’s shown no signs that he plans to break ranks—the president will be free to keep the show going for as long as he wants.

And so the quiet catastrophizing continues among the denizens of Capitol Hill. Even if some of their worst-case shutdown scenarios remain unlikely—there are still plenty of paths forward that don’t include body counts—the defeatism on display is revealing. It exposes the extent to which the latter-day crisis of faith in America’s core political institutions has infected even the members of the institutions themselves.

On Wednesday night, I spoke with a Democratic House aide who confessed that she was ambivalent about the shutdown. The battle had unified her party, with Democrats linking arms in defense of their ideals and in defiance of Trump. Polls suggested that a majority of Americans were with them, and that the “optics” of the fight were good. “While it may be horrible for the country,” she said of the shutdown, “it’s fine for the party.”

And yet for her and many of her colleagues on the Hill, she told me, “the mood is general depression.” She’d found Pelosi’s latest stunt—disinviting Trump from the State of the Union—“pointless,” and she longed for a bipartisan deal that would let her get back to work on a proactive policy agenda.

She was trying to stay upbeat, she told me. “But it’s pretty bad,” she said. “I’ve been in D.C. nine years, and I’ve never seen people this miserable.”

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