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How to end the shutdown
Jesse Richman, 1/14/2019

Shortly before Christmas, with negotiations between the White House and Congressional leadership at a stalemate, congressional authority for spending in a number of federal agencies ran out.  As a result, these agencies lost the ability to spend money.  Essential workers are being required to work without pay, and non-essential workers are being required to not work.  Democrats recently passed bills to reopen the closed agencies ( but the Senate declined to take up the bills because of the threatened presidential veto.  

The Senate unwillingness to take up the bills highlights a key challenge for the Democrats' strategy in the shutdown which seems to be to crank up the pressure on moderate Republicans to the point where they are willing to abandon Trump and join veto-proof majorities to override a Trump veto.   Because the Senate majority leader has major influence over whether bills are considered on the Senate floor, such a strategy would -- to succeed -- have to win over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  He is a long way from being won over now, as this Washington Post story discusses:  Democrats seem determined to relearn what Republicans found repeatedly during their period from 2011 through 2014: with control of the House but not the Senate, it is really really hard to get sharply partisan legislation onto the president's desk because you don't control the Senate agenda.  Back then Democrats mocked Republicans many efforts to pass a bill repealing Obamacare.  Today Democrats seem equally determined to beat their heads against a similar wall.

So what is the alternative path out of the shutdown?  Some shutdowns are over major issues of significant national import.  If this one was such a shutdown, then Democrats and Republicans might be justified in continuing it. Other shutdowns are over trivialities.  This one must rank nearly at the very top of the list of shutdowns over trivialities.  Whether or not the wall is a good policy idea, it is a minor one.  At stake is five billion in funding out of a Federal budget numbered in trillions.  To shut down the government, even part of it, with all of the chaos and costs that entails over an unwillingness to provide such funds so that the president can make a down payment on a signature campaign promise reflects a Washington in which partisan tribalism trumps policy sense.  And so, arguably, does shutting down the government in order to get such funds.

The solution then must provide a way for one tribe or the other to back down. Here's an idea -- a secret ballot.  

Members of Congress from both parties are feeling the heat from constituents concerning the costs of the shutdown.  Indeed those costs are rapidly approaching the point where they will exceed the costs of the wall according to some estimates (  But members are reluctant to publicly part from activists and party leaders who would punish them if they fail to stick with their party's position.  A secret ballot could shield members from this pressure. 

Here's how it would work.  Two omnibus bills to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year would be brought to the floor in each chamber under identical rules.  In the Senate this could be put in place with a unanimous consent agreement, and in the House it would be done through a special rule from the Rules committee.  One bill would be the Republican House bill that chamber passed on the eve of the shutdown.  The other would wrap together the Democratic budget bills passed on January 3rd.  Both bills would be debated for a finite period of time, and then both would receive a vote by secret ballot (members would vote without revealing their choices).  In the Senate a 60 vote supermajority would be required for passage as is often the case for unanimous consent agreements on controversial issues subject to filibuster. 

Votes on both bills would occur simultaneously -- votes would not be counted on either bill until all votes on both had been cast.  If either or both bills passed both chambers in identical form, they would then advance to the White House for possible signature or veto.  If neither bill passed both chambers, we could repeat the exercise again next week, and the week after.

A secret ballot would have the somewhat distressing side-effect of preventing constituents from holding their representatives accountable for the vote.  But it could have the beneficial effect of creating a shelter for moderates willing to anonymously break with their party in order to serve the greater good by reopening the government. And as an alternative to the use of emergency powers as a route to end the shut down, it has significant Constitutional advantages. 

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  • [An] extensive argument for balanced trade, and a program to achieve balanced trade is presented in Trading Away Our Future, by Raymond Richman, Howard Richman and Jesse Richman. “A minimum standard for ensuring that trade does benefit all is that trade should be relatively in balance.” [Balanced Trade entry]

    Journal of Economic Literature:

  • [Trading Away Our Future] Examines the costs and benefits of U.S. trade and tax policies. Discusses why trade deficits matter; root of the trade deficit; the “ostrich” and “eagles” attitudes; how to balance trade; taxation of capital gains; the real estate tax; the corporate income tax; solving the low savings problem; how to protect one’s assets; and a program for a strong America....

    Atlantic Economic Journal:

  • In Trading Away Our Future   Richman ... advocates the immediate adoption of a set of public policy proposal designed to reduce the trade deficit and increase domestic savings.... the set of public policy proposals is a wake-up call... [February 17, 2009 review by T.H. Cate]