When Will the Federal Government Get Back to Normal? 5 Reasons the Shutdown is the New Normal

As a partner in a small government consulting firm, I’ve asked myself this question several times over the last two years - especially as we prepare for the possibility of yet another government shutdown and then a debt default soon after. Will contracts stop? What do we tell employees? How do we prepare? Can we do much of anything? And finally: is this really just going to happen all over again in two weeks in another form (the debt ceiling), and in the same form again in November/December? I’ve noticed each shutdown crisis takes longer for anyone to pay much attention. Most of the media and Washington community didn’t really start paying attention in earnest until last week. In the past, it seemed like we were talking about a shutdown for weeks before. In some ways, we are already getting used to this new normal (or maybe it was recess and Syria), but in other ways we still continue to ask the question: when will this stop and go back to the way it was? For good or bad, I think the answer is never.

Here are five reasons I think we are in for a continued period of instability around the federal budget and appropriations and politics in general:

1. Social media, and really all media, create very little room to operate out of the public eye. Most events in Washington are followed in minute detail across a variety of platforms including traditional media: Politico, the Post, Fox News, MSNBC, the Drudge Report, Daily Kos, etc.; by interest and advocacy groups that can quickly communicate to dedicated followers; and in general, social media that can create, perpetuate, or change a story without any intermediation by traditional media.

2. The power of outside groups is getting much stronger than Congress. The ability to organize and fundraise on the part of various interest groups and individuals is easier than ever. It seems like Congress, and to some extent the Administration, has become a chessboard on which outside interest groups play. To some extent this has always been true, but the level of sophistication of outside groups is up, and the ability of Congress to preserve its institutional prerogatives is down.

3. We live in a time where the power of dedicated minorities is greater than ever. It doesn’t take that many people to flood a Congressional office with email, mail, and phone calls, or win a primary election for that matter.

4. We are divided. It’s clear that the divisions between the parties have solidified over the last decade or two, and we’ve entered an era of polarization not seen since the late 1800s. Given that polarized interests now have the additional advantages of easier fundraising and organizing, that’s a potent mix.

5. The instability we see in politics is similar to the instability we see in technology, business, and society in general. Social norms are changing: Microsoft is down and Twitter is up, everyone has their head in a smart phone, and the demographic mix of the country is altering with each passing year.

I don’t know whether we are entering a period of one CR crisis after another followed by the CR crisis’s much larger and uglier twin brother, the debt ceiling crisis. That has been true for 2-3 years now, and it may continue. Another possibility is that we get to place where most interests see the budget battles as a loser and move to different tactics.

Although the tactics might shift, the instability will remain, and I don’t know what the outcome is. Do institutions like Congress, the parties, and the Administration learn a new set of tactics to seize back control of the situation or do we adjust to a new normal in which power is more diffuse, and crises are a matter of course? I don’t think anyone knows the answer, but one thing I do know is that it isn’t going back to “normal”.