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Commentary: Congressman Gallagher’s Lessons from the Shutdown

Let’s face it: the government shutdown was stupid. I don’t say that to place blame on any particular party or person. The blame game is endless, and while it provides a short-term sugar high, it ultimately poisons the body politic. Rather, the shutdown was stupid because border security is one of the most solvable problems we face, and we got no closer to solving it.

To avoid another shutdown on Feb. 15, we need to learn three lessons from our stupidity. First, there is massive miscommunication about what is actually being proposed. In January, I went to the White House with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to meet with President Trump and Vice President Pence on border security. Within minutes it became clear that, although Republicans and Democrats speak in different tones about the problem, their proposed solutions are not as dissimilar as the media suggests.

Despite what you may have heard, the White House is not asking for one gigantic concrete wall running coast to coast. Rather, the administration wants a comprehensive package that provides for:

• 234 new miles of steel barriers (the southern border is 1,954 miles long)

• Resources for 750 additional border-patrol agents and 75 immigration judges to help address the growing backlog of cases

• Close to $700 million for new technologies to combat narcotics and arms trafficking

• $800 million for humanitarian purposes to ensure that families aren’t separated and no children die at the border

Perhaps Democrats disagree with this proposal. But assuming everyone agrees on the long-term goal of gaining 100 percent operational control of the border, then the only question is: how do we do it more effectively? What is the right mix of barriers, technology and people? I’m open to a counterproposal, but doing nothing is not a realistic option. And if the $5.7 billion price tag is what turns you off, consider that $5.7 billion represents .0014 percent of the total federal budget for fiscal year 2018. The federal government spends that much every 12 hours.

In other words, the debate over border security is the best kind of debate to have. It’s not about irreconcilable, abstract principles. It’s about specific requirements that we can measure in terms of geography, human resources and cost. In fact, I bet you could lock any group of 30 people from Northeast Wisconsin in a room (i.e., bar) together, and we could figure this whole thing out in less than 30 minutes. Maybe it’s because common sense is a part of our culture, whereas in D.C. common sense is an uncommon virtue.

If we move the focus of the debate from an abstract “wall” to the specifics of what we need to do to get 100 percent operational control of the southern border, we can get closer to a solution. And the sooner we break through this impasse, the sooner we can move on to more important issues impacting Americans – from health care to student debt to the opioid crisis, just to name a few.  

This leads me to the second lesson we need to learn: a top-down approach to policy problems does not work. It seems we routinely let the president and the four most powerful members of Congress negotiate in secret, while the rest of us wait for white smoke to emerge from the White House chimney. We shouldn’t be surprised when this process results in a last-second vote on legislation that we have no opportunity to evaluate or amend. Instead, Congress should get to work from the ground up, starting with the relevant committees and ordinary members like those of us in the Problem Solvers Caucus or Bipartisan Working Group. Bottom-up solutions increase the likelihood of achieving sound and long-lasting policies.

I have proposed a series of reforms that would shift the House away from a top-down process to a bottom-up process. I believe that until we reform the institution and change the way Congress operates, we’ll be right back where we started: satisfying the definition of insanity by doing the same things and expecting different results. At a minimum, we should demand that Congress avoid insanity.

The third lesson is simple: problems don’t age well. That’s true in life and particularly true in politics. We can’t punt the problem of border security to the next generation. So let’s work together over these next two weeks with a sense of urgency to fix it. Perhaps if we solve this small problem, we can start to figure out how we fix all our bigger problems. It would certainly be a good start.