"Time is not that pressing," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) on Thursday around 1:00 p.m. Then he started talking about clean water. "Fish should be safe in our waters," he suggested.
"I thank Sen. Wicker for his leadership on this issue," his Republican colleague Sen. Dan Sullivan (Ala.) replied. A few minutes later another Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), remarked that he keeps a diary, from which he began to read aloud. "I wrote further in my journal at that time" is not something you expect to hear on the Senate floor even at the best of times, when Ted Cruz is not reading aloud from Green Eggs and Ham. But it captured the mood in Washington, D.C., on Thursday afternoon only hours before what was a short-lived government shutdown, our second in as many weeks.
A two-year budget resolution was passed a few hours later by the Senate. Deliberations in the House continued into early Friday morning, but there too, despite the deliciously cynical grandstanding of Nancy Pelosi, who led her party by voting against the spending bill without whipping it, the measure won its 240 votes and was sent to President Trump. A brief second shutdown was thus ended. The debt ceiling was raised or rather, in the deliberately mixed metaphor that is the official language of Washington, "suspended." Spending at the Pentagon, where single agencies routinely "lose" amounts as large as $800 million, was increased by billions. Thank goodness. This last appropriation was after all, in the words of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), "an absolute necessity for our national security."
Is the budget, as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer suggested, not only "a good deal for the American people" but a triumph of democracy and bipartisanship and a vindication of our citizen-statesmen? There are reasons to be skeptical.
All afternoon senators and congressmen of both parties congratulated one another on their dogged selflessness. Members of each party, it was claimed, had carefully considered the package, sighed at those beloved chattels with which they would be forced to part, and voted yea. Glittering prizes, such as the continued existence of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), created not once but twice, by sections 3403 and 10320 of the Affordable Care Act, were reluctantly abandoned by the Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, lamented the sad fact that they would be forced to increase the military budget only by ensuring at least one more decade of funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program. "The Bipartisan Budget Act is truly bipartisan," said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-N.D.).
This is probably the case, but it's worth considering what that much-vaunted adjective means. It hardly speaks to the virtues of either party or their members. What it amounts to is Republicans admitting that their apocalyptic predictions about deficit spending were a farce and Democrats acknowledging that in addition to not being bothered by the same fiscal laxity that had appalled them when their opponents cut taxes last December, they had also been putting us on when they claimed a few weeks ago that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was non-negotiable. Very few people in this country, certainly very few on Capitol Hill, care very much about the size of the federal budget or the fate of immigrants. Everyone genuflects before the altar of national security.
Despite what their rhetoric in television ads, press conferences, and fundraising pitches (including the four I received in my email inbox in the space of an hour on Thursday) suggest to the contrary, there is very little disagreement about any significant political issues in Congress. The truth, that our perennial brushes with debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, shutdowns, and other looming abstractions occur not because we are divided but because we are so desperately united, that "gridlock" itself is possible only because of the insignificant nature of the disagreements between our parties, is something that cannot be acknowledged. Unlike tweets by the president, a wider appreciation of the inertia upon which our system rests probably would spell the end of our democratic system.
The truth is that there is a consensus in Washington. It's a consensus that tells us that both parties agree about the size and scope of government, about the insignificance of deficit spending, about the benign nature of our foreign interventions, about the necessity of sweeping aside the problems — a false and ugly prosperity made possible by the impoverishment of people living far away from us, the spoliation of the natural world, drug addiction encouraged by corporate greed, moral disorder, spiritual despair — faced by ordinary Americans.
While collegial senators have good-natured discussions about the intensity of their commitment to the health of various piscine species, the rest of us inhabit a strange Alice-like world in which students pay the government an average of $40,000 in order to be considered for jobs at which they will earn less than their parents do, in which billions of dollars can be made in an instant by computer programmers whose net worth is greater than what thousands of their fellow citizens could earn together in multiple lifetimes. In this dark fantasy of ours young men born two decades ago can die fighting half a world away in the same war in which their fathers were serving in 2002, in which millions of adolescents spend their lives sitting in front of the screens that we have decided are a necessary part of their education watching women being tortured in "pain rooms."
This bizarre state of affairs does not trouble our legislators. It does not even exist for them. If it did, it is impossible to imagine how they might behave. But it would look nothing like this week's bipartisan confab.