The capitol hill bar specials are over. The cable news countdown clocks are reset for the next shutdown showdown. Non-essential employees are needed once again…at least for three weeks.
In 2013, Senator Cruz and Republican congressmen made a mockery of the government funding process – withholding support for funding in hopes of a process that ended with President Obama signing a bill to eliminate…. OBAMAcare. It was action without plan. An endgame nowhere in sight. Brick Tamland had a better argument. The Democratic corollary to this was perfectly summed up by Senator Schumer during the 2013 shutdown when he jested: “’I believe in immigration reform. What if I persuaded my caucus to say ‘I’m going to shut down the government, I’m not going to pay the bills unless I get my way.’ This is confrontation of idiocy and paralysis.” A little over four years later, the Schumer-led Senate Democrats did just that. In 2013, we had a 16-day shutdown. This time around, it was three days, and everyone in this country is dumber for have listened to it and may god have mercy on our souls.
80 percent of Americans disapproved of the 2013 shutdown. It’s unlikely this one was considered any differently. Yet, inside-the-beltway strategists try to justify the actions by measuring relative harm. As one former Obama advisor opined, “in government shutdowns, there are no winners, but there are bigger losers.”
Regardless of one’s perspective on the role and size of the federal government – shutdowns are counterproductive and wasteful. Sure, shutdowns are mostly theatrics whose impacts are minimalized by provisions that allow essential functions to continue. Even if bathroom closures at national parks are the most visible representation of Congressional dysfunction, we can all agree that long-planned family vacations should not be ruined by poorly planned political strategies. Taxpayers spent $2.5 billion on backpay for the 850,000 federal employees that were furloughed during the 2013 shutdown. That is no small cost for no work.
Instead of giving hundreds of thousands of federal employees a free vacation and forcing a family to deal with a closed national park bathroom, what if the fallout of Congressional incompetence and indecision was contained to only those that are responsible. What if instead of a countdown to shutting down government services – the clock instead was a countdown to only Congress and the White House losing their paychecks?
Its an idea being floated by Senator James Lankford (R-OK) as a variation of the End Government Shutdowns Act – a bill sponsored by Senators Portman (R-OH) and Tester (D-MT) in the Senate. The idea would be that if Congress is unable to pass funding bills in time, instead of triggering a “shutdown,” all the agencies would be funded at current levels under a “continuing resolution” except for deep and progressively escalating cuts to Congressional and White House budgets and members’ salaries (a temporary workaround would be needed to be constitutional). This idea would keep the government open while maintaining an incentive for Washington to get things done. Given the apparent defanging of the shutdown impact – perhaps having our leaders decisions (or lack thereof) impacting themselves and their staff would provide the incentives necessary to get the job done on behalf of the American people. Not only would the proposal end government shutdowns, it could have the added benefit of improving a broken budget process.
The fiscal year starts on October 1st every year. All 12 individual appropriation bills are supposed to be passed by that date. We are nearly one-third of the way through the fiscal year and Congress still has not passed any of them. Instead, Congress has elected to punt on funding issues by passing continuing resolutions (CRs). Only twice since 1979 has Congress not used at least one continuing resolution in a fiscal year. Congress has not passed a single appropriation bill on time since 2010. In the last 11 years, out of 130 possible appropriations bill, only 7 have been passed on time. Under the new system, since continuing resolutions will be automatic – the only thing Congress can do come October 1st is either do real funding bills or take a budget cut. Theoretically, they could pass a funding patch for themselves but it would be a tough sell to the public. The budget process is fundamentally broken – this could help change it.
Brinksmanship will likely continue – but right now the uncertainty and disruptions caused by governing by crisis deadlines costs real money. Between Fiscal Years 1998 and 2015, the average length of each CR was only 24.6 days. These short-term stopgaps cause hiring delays and repetitive work such as multiple contracts within a year with vendors and contractors. An automatic CR would provide a reliable source of funding for federal agencies that would mitigate the inefficiencies created by lurching from one short-term CR to the next. If it gets Congress to act on appropriations in a timely manner, even better. The costs of preparing for, lost services during, and restarting government activities following government shutdowns are all tax dollars needlessly expended on functions that are not part of the government’s core mission.
Finally, and probably most importantly, it would prevent the all-to-common tactic used by Congressional leadership to negotiate a massive funding bill behind closed doors and release it at the last second before a shutdown deadline hits. Lately, its been more common than not that our government is funded with a 2000-page bill that Congressional members and the public have had fewer than two days to try to read and analyze before a vote. That is how a lot of waste and special interest provisions get tucked into bills. Removing the pressure packed situation of an imminent government shutdown will allow members and the public time to review the bill for unrelated or wasteful provisions. It would also reduce the effectiveness of the opaque, leadership-centric, backroom deal making that is anathema to our representative democracy from taking place.
While there will always be disagreements on the appropriate size and role of the federal government, everyone can agree that we should strive for an efficient and effective one. The immaturity of DC politics is at all-time highs. No one will be surprised if we are in for another shutdown on February 9th. But there are real costs to these antics. Instead of locked bathrooms and free vacations, there should be missing paychecks for lawmakers. That could be a better way.