It has been called the shutdown about nothing. In bringing it to an end, lawmakers managed to accomplish even less than that.
There’s a temptation, after Washington moves away from the latest in its seemingly endless lines of confrontations, to celebrate the moment. Words like “bipartisan” and “compromise” are bandied about. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid quickly labeled the agreement “historic.”
There’s a reflexive desire to declare that, for all the sausage-making, the system worked.
Except that it didn’t, not even a little bit. This was a moment when Washington simply broke, or, at the very least, showed the world how hopelessly and totally broken it has become.
As a result of the agreement reached Wednesday, three weeks of sheer madness have come to an end. That’s about it.
A government that nobody wanted to shut down is poised to reopen after 16 days of personal hardship, disappointed tourists and vast amounts of wasted productivity. The United States was on the brink of defaulting on its debts because of simple legislative paralysis; the best that can be said of a higher debt limit is that this won’t happen, at least for now.
Beyond that, not a single law or government policy is changing in even a small way. If you’re looking for vast changes to the new Obama health care law, keep looking and, eventually, you’ll find that if you qualify for a health care subsidy, the government will now seek to verify your income.
Actually, the compromise reached Wednesday seems likely to make future confrontations – and they’ll be back soon enough – even worse. The long-term budget challenges surrounding entitlement spending and an aging population are again being pushed toward a future, nebulous time, while they only grow more acute.
This deal, indeed, creates three new deadlines, in successive months – fresh opportunities for more governance-by-crisis. We have a December budget-negotiation deadline, a January expiration date for all government funding (yes, again), and a fresh deadline of Feb. 7 for the nation’s debt ceiling.
Yes, President Obama got almost everything he insisted on, in getting government funding and a debt-ceiling extension without having to give up much at all. But the idea that doing so would “break the fever” and usher in a new era of cooperation is as dead as the “grand bargain,” particularly now that Republicans have so little to show for the past few weeks.
This episode will be remembered for many reasons: for Sen. Ted Cruz’s stamina and stagecraft; for the rise of outside groups in directing traffic inside the Capitol; for shuttered monuments and idled federal workers; for Obama’s absence from negotiations of which he rejected the premise; for the big, perhaps inevitable clash between two starkly different visions of government.
It should also be remembered as a moment that Washington managed to seal itself off almost completely from the lives of the people sent to this city to represent them.
The lights are coming back on. But there’s little worth gazing on in Washington.