Opinion: Teachers, tacos and good governance — government shutdown lessons from Oregon

Dark Lady

“When will the shutdown be over and when will our budget pass?”

I wasn’t acting as a state representative when I got this question. I was on mom duty — attending a conference for my 12-year-old son, Asa, when his teacher approached me for an update on the Republican senators’ decision to walk out on the job. He, like so many public employees, was concerned about whether we would have enough teachers for the fall, or be able to fund summer school in the district — all because of political gamesmanship.

The people of Oregon, whom I’ve proudly represented since 2017, are no strangers to the consequences and pains of government shutdowns. Earlier this year in the Oregon state Legislature, Republican lawmakers walked off the job for the fifth time in five years, creating the longest state legislative shutdown in American history. They were attempting to stall conversations on bills to protect abortion access for Oregonians and create common-sense gun safety legislation — two issues that are massively popular in every corner of our state. In doing so, they were willing to stop action on everything else, including wildfire safety, health care reform, safe drinking water and the annual budget — the same budget worrying my son’s teacher that night, and so many families across the state.

Now, we’re seeing history repeat itself on the national stage. At a time when millions of people around the country are struggling to make ends meet, Republican extremists in Congress are putting politics ahead of working people.

My son’s teacher is emblematic of the impact of a shutdown: normal folks suffering the consequences of Republican lawmakers playing politics and stoking culture wars. A shutdown could impact everything from our kids’ education, to workers’ paychecks, to halting WIC (the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) support, leaving those in need without essential resources.

From stressed teachers and uncertain school budgets, to larger ramifications on our small businesses and economy, the ripple effects of a single party refusing to show up for work cannot be understated. There are 28,000 federal employees in Oregon, who will be either laid off or asked to work without pay, should Congressional Republicans fail to do their jobs.

As a small business owner, I would never expect my employees — my team — to work without pay. As a mom and an elected leader, I would never refuse to show up or keep my promises for my family or my community. I hold the federal government to the same standard. We all should.

All our constituents and neighbors are asking for a functioning government. That shouldn’t be viewed as an unrealistic aspiration, nor should it be used as a political bargaining chip; it’s the bare minimum of our responsibility as elected officials. The more time we spend holding our breath — waiting to see if our teachers, our veterans, our public servants get the resources they need — the less time we have to wrestle with the larger challenges we collectively face.

Here in Oregon, we’ve seen the way walking off the job strips legislators of the time to have healthy debate and negatively impacts our ability to form functional, working relationships across the aisle. I’ve also seen how it’s possible to get the work done for Oregonians. Without brinkmanship. More than once, when my kids’ football or basketball game has brought me into a Republican colleague’s district, I’ve called them up to join me. We sit in the stands, eat tacos from a local restaurant and cheer on the players. We may be rooting for different teams, but when we see each other as colleagues and parents, we can maintain a relationship that is productive. Not combative.

Maybe a healthy democracy isn’t as simple as a shared meal or a tough conversation, but it doesn’t have to be as combative as it is today. Republicans in Washington, D.C., should take a lesson from Oregon’s walkout: we need you to show up, engage in healthy and respectful debate on the tough challenges you were elected to address, and ensure, at a minimum, a government that functions on behalf of the people. We can and must do better.


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