“This is all pageantry,” a Democratic House aide said of the posturing by Trump and Congress. “It’s going to take a big national event to move things. I mean, we’re at a standstill.”
One senior Republican Senate staffer told me he could envision the shutdown lasting until March, when federal funding dries up for food stamps—a crisis that would be hard for Washington to ignore. “Not only are there going to be a lot of hungry families,” he said, “but there are going to be a lot of Walmarts and Safeways and Krogers that are missing revenue.”
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Others warned of potential flash points in America’s airports, where TSA agents and air-traffic controllers have already been working without pay for weeks. According to the Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, some Republican lawmakers close to the White House have privately concluded that the shutdown won’t end until TSA employees stay home and Americans “get furious about their flights.”
On a similar—if darker—note, I spoke to one congressional staffer who wondered aloud whether it might take a stressed-out air-traffic controller causing a plane crash to bring an end to the shutdown. And several aides worried that some kind of terrorist incident would end up serving as the catalyst to get the government up and running again.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who spent more than a decade working in Congress, told me he could imagine the shutdown ending if the reported lapse in inspections from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prompted a widespread food-safety scare. “We saw what happened with romaine lettuce a few weeks ago,” he said. “You give that same kind of scare to a ranch in California, and all of a sudden not only do everyone’s beef prices go up, but there’s a mass panic.”
Of course, for many of the 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed for weeks—struggling to scrape together rent payments and child-care money—the gridlock gripping Washington probably feels disastrous enough already. They don’t need a big, scary symbol of disarray to highlight the problem; they need their elected officials to do their jobs. “Congress and the Trump administration should not have to wait for serious impacts to reverberate across the country for there to be action on this,” Heye said.
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But if this latest episode of Washington dysfunction has veered at times toward Veep-ish absurdity, it is also emblematic of a more consequential chaos that defines the Trump era.
If one thing unites most Republicans and Democrats on the Hill these days, it’s that there is little use in trying to negotiate in good faith with the Trump White House. The president is simply too volatile, too prone to change his mind in a fit of pique, too apt to reverse course after watching Fox News. It was Trump, after all, who abruptly backed out of an agreed-upon budget deal last month after right-wing media figures such as Ann Coulter started clamoring for border-wall funding.