Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat known both for his bipartisan bent and for his growing anger toward the dysfunctional institution in which he serves, wants to make sure that if the government shuts down, the people who shut it down suffer.
Bennet has introduced the “Shutdown Accountability Resolution.” The effect would be that from the moment a shutdown starts, most members of the Senate would be forced to remain in the Senate chambers from 8 am to midnight, all day, every day. No weekends. No fundraisers. No trips home to see their families or constituents.
The proposal would not, itself, resolve the DREAMer debate that’s driving the federal government toward shutdown. But it would give the senators involved a powerful incentive to find a solution. This is a body that typically comes together in Washington a few days a week for only part of the year. The last thing they want is to be tied to the Senate floor day after day, for weeks or months on end.
Here’s how the resolution works: It would change Senate rules so that following a lapse in funding for one or more federal agencies — the technical meaning of a shutdown — the Senate must convene at 8 am the next day. Upon convening, the presiding officer forces a quorum call to see who’s present.
In the absence of a quorum, the Senate moves to a roll call vote demanding the attendance of absent senators. If a sufficient number are absent, the sergeant at arms will be asked to arrest them. This process is repeated every hour between 8 am and midnight until a bill passes reopening the government.
The result is that senators need to remain on or near the Senate floor for the duration of the shutdown. They can’t go wait it out in the comfort of their own home.
“These changes would at best motivate Congress into avoiding crisis and getting the work done it was elected to do,” Bennet argues. “At worst, they would force senators to stay on or near the Senate floor and actually communicate with one another until they open the government back up.”
Behind this proposal lies a theory: Dysfunction of this sort should be costly to the politicians permitting it. Not just politically costly, but personally costly, physically costly. In a government shutdown, people will suffer. They will lose access to services they rely on; they will be forced to stay home from work and denied back pay. Every moment that’s happening should be hell on the politicians who let it happen.
This is beyond the scope of Bennet’s proposal, but imagine, in the event of a shutdown, that President Trump was forced to work long days at the White House — no 11 am start times, no $100,000-a-plate dinners at Mar-a-Lago, no golf trips. Does anyone doubt he might find himself more interested in a deal? (For the record, the president is scheduled to head to Mar-a-Lago today, even with a shutdown looming.)
James Wallner, a longtime Republican Senate staffer and a political scientist at the R Street Institute, makes a version of this argument in his new book On Parliamentary War: Partisan Conflict and Procedural Change in the US Senate. The problem with the modern Senate, he says, is dysfunction is relatively costless — the two sides whine about it, and complain about it, and then go off and fundraise on it. There is no better example of this than the modern filibuster, which is now a genteel agreement that happens behind closed doors — not the grueling talk-a-thon that led Jimmy Stewart to collapse in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
This is, he argues, something of a quiet pact made between the two parties. The Senate is run for the mutual convenience of its members, and while policy and even process preferences might change, both sides have an interest in heading home for long weekends and working reasonable hours.
If the heavy-handed application of power by the majority, and relentless obstruction by the minority, was hard — and by that he means physically hard, time-consuming, unpleasant — then it would be rarer too. So long as misbehavior is easy and costless, it’s common. If politicians paid a personal, physical, geographical price for misbehavior, perhaps they would think harder about which issues were important enough to them to go to the mat over.
The shutdown we are facing would be comic were it not so tragic. At issue is a deal over DREAMers — a deal that both parties, and the president, have said they want to see made. But last week, Trump decided he didn’t want such a deal after all, and top Republicans, despite their confusion, have backed him in his change of heart.
Another way of saying that is congressional Republicans and the president of the United States have decided it would cost them less personally to shut down the government and let DREAMers twist in the wind then accept the kind of deal they have been asking for for months. It is hard to take this as a statement of their deep convictions so much as evidence that the pain they are causing others has become too abstract. Being forced to remain in Washington and work to resolve a shutdown you caused is not comparable to the terror of being deported or the pain of losing wages due to events entirely beyond your control, but it’s a start.