The shutdown finally came to an end. It was the longest in American history. It has done great damage to the economy, and to the federal workforce. It has stolen a sense of stability from this workforce. They will be made whole, however, we are not sure about private sector contractors.
There is legislation in process to also make those contractors whole, but there is no precedent on this ever happening. Democrats and Republicans are planning to introduce legislation to prevent any more shutdowns.
There were two major factors that led to this result. And they both matter.
Separation of Powers
The first is that we watched the Constitution at work. Americans may not be too familiar with this, because we are used to an Imperial Presidency that has taken hold over at least two generations. If the president says jump, Congress tends to ask, how high?
Whether you agree with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or not, what she did was reassert the power of the House over the purse. She used the powers that the Constitution grants the legislative body. If this surprised you, we have not seen this since at least the Tip O’Neal era. Newt Gingrich tried, but his methods lead straight to the present dysfunction. Tip O’Neal used the power to maintain the functions of the House, within the Constitutional order. Gingrich violated those often.
Over the last few years, we have seen dysfunction from partisan ends. Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate did all he could to obstruct the agenda of a democratic president, including blocking a Supreme Court judge. In the same breath, he also kept any legislation to open the government from reaching the floor. Why? The goal was to be subservient to ideology and to the president. He surrendered his responsibilities. He was doing this in the vein of Speaker Gingrich. His goal was not to assert the independence of the branch, under the Constitution, but to be supine to the executive.
It was transparent when McConnell said that he would not bring to the floor any bill that the President would not sign. It appears that the Majority Leader never heard of veto overrides. And it is quite possible that he could have gotten the votes to do this early in the shutdown, since the bill that was finally passed was the same exact Continuing Resolution his body passed in December, with date changes.
This speaks to a serious issue in the United States. At least one leader is not willing to enforce his role as head of one of the three branches of government. Speaker Pelosi must have been a shock to both McConnell and the president. But chiefly, she was a surprise, maybe even a shock, to many Americans who are not familiar with the separation of powers within the Constitution.
This part of the story is even less understood. When Sarah Nelson, head of the Flight Attendants Union called for a national strike. We crossed a critical boundary. She told Slate why Federal Workers could not strike:
They felt really stuck. Don’t forget, if they struck, they were putting it all on the line. Not only were they sacrificing potentially their health care, their pensions, the right to ever work for the federal government again, but they could be prosecuted for striking. That’s how fundamentally they are not able to take action when there is such an egregious act against them. That’s outrageous and that’s something that has to change.
This was a critical part of the conversation. It matters. The erosion of worker rights makes it at times very difficult, if not outright illegal, to strike. If you are part of a Union, and your contract includes a no-strike clause, you are part of a greatly diminished union movement.
However, her call for a national strike is unprecedented in modern times. I am using the present since the threat of another shutdown is there. So were the deepening sickouts that were bringing the air traffic system down. Less understood was the same phenomena in the Internal Revenue Service. People are still going to feel the effect because tax returns are expected to be delayed.
Organized labor, with all its faults and weakness, is discovering the muscle inherent in the movement. The words “national strike” are unprecedented in modern memory. The last was seventy long years ago. Some Americans may still remember it. But they were at best young at the time.
There are some people who credit labor for the president seeing the light and ending the shutdown. He threatens to bring another to pass if he does not get his wall by mid-February. In truth, it was a combination. Those who only credit Speaker Nancy Pelosi are also wrong.
However, things are never as simple as just a single factor. There is another, less spoken. Many of the President’s friends would have had trouble getting to the Supper bowl. And then there were others in the top echelons of business who were affected by the shutdown, and apparently, Trump One was stuck in La Guardia. I have not been able to confirm this one, but if true, it explains a lot. It is always about Trump.
However, Americans tasted Separation of Powers, and organized labor did flex muscles. This could be one of those inflection points in American history that historians will look back at. We may be watching the end of the Imperial Presidency and the rebirth of organized labor as a force in the country. Both will be needed if we are to start cracking the heavy load of income inequality that is a very destabilizing factor.
Time will tell if this is a momentary blip or a serious change.