A campground closure notice refers to the government shutdown at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. Photo by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) via Flickr.com; some rights reserved.

Senator advises on ways to end government shutdown

A campground closure notice refers to the government shutdown at Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. Photo by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) via Flickr.com; some rights reserved.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

Government shutdowns should be as off-limits to budget negotiations as chemical weapons are to warfare. Nevertheless, we are stuck in one.

In the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama invited me to meet with him at the White House. Our conversation that day in the Oval Office offers a lesson for resolving the current partial government shutdown. The president wanted to talk about our work in Congress to fix an education law called “No Child Left Behind.” If you think the current impasse on border security is complicated, try setting federal policy for 100,000 public schools. It’s like 100,000 spectators agreeing on which play to call at a University of Tennessee football game: Everyone is an expert.

On that day, Obama told me there were three things that had to be in the legislation for him to sign it. I told the president that if he would not oppose the bill as it made its way through Congress, those three things would be in the final bill. On Dec. 10, 2015, Obama signed our legislation into law, calling it a “Christmas miracle” even though there were plenty of other provisions in it he didn’t like. “You kept your word,” he told me. “So did you,” I said.

Why, as a Republican, did I agree to a Democratic president’s requests with which I did not agree? Because I have read the Constitution and understand that if the president does not sign legislation, it does not become law.

AFGE members picket outside the Liberty Bell and call on lawmakers to reopen the government and put America back to work. (Note: The AFGE is the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, representing 700,000 federal and D.C. government workers nationwide and overseas.) Photo by AFGE via Flickr.com; some rights reserved.

Democrats should realize, as I did back then, that if an elected president has a legitimate objective, they should bend over backwards to accommodate it. Since President Trump made it clear he won’t sign any legislation to reopen the federal government without some increase in funding for border security, here are three options for where we could go from here:

  1. Go small: Give the president the $1.6 billion he asked for in this year’s budget request, which the bipartisan Senate Appropriations Committee approved. Provide an additional $1 billion to improve border security at ports of entry, which everyone concedes is needed.
  2. Go bigger: Pass the bill that 54 senators voted for last February, which combined a solution for children brought to the United States illegally (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA) and $25 billion in appropriated funding for border security over 10 years. The bill failed only because of last-minute White House opposition.
  3. Go really big: Begin the new Congress by creating a legal immigration system that secures our borders and defines legal status for those already here. In 2013, 68 senators – including all 54 Democrats – voted for such a bill, but the House refused to take it up. That bill included more than $40 billion and many other provisions to secure our borders.

Resolving this partial government shutdown by going really big on immigration could be Trump’s Nixon-to-China, Reagan-to-the-Berlin-Wall moment in history. I hope Democrats will negotiate with the president and come to an agreement so we can do what we were elected to do: Make the government work for taxpayers, not shut it down.

Focusing on cutting the cost of health care

Up to half of health care spending is unnecessary. In the U.S., that means $1-1.8 trillion of our health care spending in 2017 was unnecessary. That is more than the gross domestic product of every country in the world except for the top nine. And for the last eight years, most of the debate about health care hasn’t been about this extraordinary fact that we may be spending up to half of what we spend on health care unnecessarily. Instead we have been focused on health insurance. But the truth is we will never have lower cost health insurance until we have lower cost health care. And while this problem can’t be solved in Washington alone, my top focus as chairman of the Senate health committee for the next two years will be to reduce the cost of health care in the United States.

High health care costs are a drain on taxpayer dollars, eat up employer budgets, and — most important — are a top financial concern for American families. According to a Gallup poll released days before the midterms, 80 percent of registered voters rated health care as “extremely” or “very important” to their vote. I held five hearings on this subject in the health committee last year, and I plan on continuing my work and making the cost of health care my top priority this Congress. The federal government is not going to lower the cost of health care overnight, but I believe there are steps we can take that would make a real difference to American families. That might be two or three big steps, or a dozen smaller ones, but we shouldn’t let this opportunity to make progress pass us by.

LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-Tenn.) is the senior U.S. senator, former Tennessee governor and former U.S. Secretary of Education for 1991-1993. He chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) and also serves on the Committee on Appropriations, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Committee on Rules and Administration. Alexander may be reached at his Washington, D.C., office at (202) 224-4944 or via his website contact page at alexander.senate.gov.

The sign reads “Due to the lapse in federal appropriations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is unable fully to staff the properties under its management. Use caution when entering, as personnel will not be able to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance or emergency response on Refuge System property. Entry during the government shutdown is at the visitor’s sole risk.” Photo by Judy Gallagher via Flickr.com; some rights reserved.