Opportunity Costs of the Shutdown

Petty, shortsighted fights are keeping Congress from focusing on what really matters.

National Journal

Remember when immigration reform was something that people thought would happen this fall? It will be difficult to pass before the legislative calendar is up thanks to a short session in Congress packed with maddening, time-sensitive fiscal fights.

Immigration legislation, energy reforms, and foreign policy goals are just a few of the lofty efforts that have been sidelined as Congress continues to quibble over six-plus weeks of funding and several hundred thousand federal employees wait furloughed on the sidelines. Now, with House Speaker John Boehner saying there will no debt-limit increase and no end to the partial government shutdown unless President Obama negotiates with House Republicans, and Obama demanding Republicans raise the debt ceiling and avoid default without conditions, the situation may be about to get a whole lot worse.

Where did things go wrong? Last week, during a standard appearance at a construction site in Rockville, Md., Obama suggested that a series of short-term federal funding battles are interfering with the larger task of governing: "House Republicans need to stop careening from one crisis to another in everything they do," he said. "Have you noticed that? Since they've taken over the House of Representatives, we have one of these crises every three months."

The policy costs of these short-term funding battles were apparent Thursday when, amid the political turmoil engendered by the government shutdown, Obama announced that his upcoming trip to Asia had been called off and that Secretary of State John Kerry would travel in his place. The trip, as National Journal's George Condon noted recently, was central to the president's desire to do big things in foreign policy in his second term.

The latest trip cancellation "would leave a big geopolitical mark" in Asia, where local leaders are already questioning U.S. commitment to the area, Ernest Bower of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Washington Post.

"Political reality may dictate that President Obama cannot travel to Asia in October," he wrote in recent op-ed just ahead of the president's decision to abort the trip. "If so, the United States will need to recover its position over time, but the damage will have been done."

The president faces setbacks in other areas as well. Immigration reform is expected to be difficult to pass before the end of the legislative year as Congress continues to bicker over short-term funding. What's more, the U.S. is set to hit the debt ceiling Oct. 17, which will require further congressional action to stave off an economically disastrous default. That's all bad news for immigration-reform advocates, since the longer reform is delayed the less likely it is that anything will pass.

"Time is our enemy," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who's crafting his own immigration legislation in the House, said on NBC Latino. "If we don't get it done this year, it gets more difficult."

Congress's squabbling is having an effect other places, too. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the shutdown could delay the implementation of the Obama administration's tightened standards for new power plants. Per National Journal's Alex Brown: "The forced cutback of employees, the agency said in an email, would delay the rules' publication in the Federal Register, which in turn would set back the 60-day comment period and required public hearing before the implementation of new regulations."

What area of policy will suffer next?