The Washington Post recently reported Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) as saying, “We should not fear a government shutdown. Most of what we do up here is bad anyway.”
It’s hard to believe that not all that long ago the prospect of a government shutdown was so embarrassing Congress usually got its act together before the dreaded drop-dead date by enacting temporary, stop-gap continuing appropriations resolutions (CRs) to keep the government open.
In more recent times, however, government shutdowns have become more common, with 10 occurring since 1990. The longest shutdown to date was 35 days in 2018-19 over President Trump’s attempt to complete building the barrier on our southern border. The next longest shutdowns were 21-days during the Clinton administration in 1995-96, and 16-days under President Obama in 2013.
Some fiscal conservatives seem to be cheering-on the possibility of a shutdown as one way to curb government spending. It is not. Funding lapses still have to be made whole once the government reopens. One almost expects a new Government Shutdown Caucus to spring-up amidst the bower of proliferating Congressional Member Organizations. It gives a whole new dynamic to the term, “governing.”
The alternative to a shutdown, if Congress does not have its fiscal house in order by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, is the ever-reliable continuing appropriations resolution (CR). The October first fiscal new year has not been fully celebrated with all 12 ducks in a row since 1997. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation has counted 132 CRs enacted between fiscal years 1998 and 2024.
In the current FY24 cycle, the first CR, enacted on fiscal new year’s eve (Sept. 30) has extended government funding through this coming Friday, Nov. 17. That CR, along with the debt limit increase deal negotiated with the administration earlier this year, are what cost former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) his speakership thanks to a handful of eight Republicans initiating a resolution to “vacate the chair,” supported by all Democrats.
The leading question today is how the new House Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), will, Houdini-like, wriggle-out of a similar funding conundrum, without being defenestrated like his predecessor. He will need some clever new moves to keep the government shutdown warriors at bay.
Meantime, since none of the 12 regular appropriations bills has yet to be enacted, Speaker Johnson announced a tentative plan for this week’s CR to fund five of the measures through Jan. 19 and the rest through Feb. 2 — all at current FY23 spending levels. But don’t count on rational acting to carry the day. Members are increasingly making demands on leadership to include their pet rocks in the mix as leverage to overcome Senate and White House opposition. The greater the demands, the more likely shorter-term, stop-gap CRs will be enacted, leaving Congress to stutter-step its way to New Year’s Eve.
It is not difficult to believe, given all the speed bumps of dysfunction along the congressional budgeting road, that Congress will find the process much more difficult to navigate despite nearly 50 years of experience under the Budget Act. The carefully crafted budget process machinery is showing signs of wear and tear. It may not yet be an obsolete relic of a bygone era but members attach less importance to it than in the past.
The House and Senate Budget committees keep churning out annual budget resolutions for approval by both houses. And the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) continues to produce its expert non-partisan cost estimates on legislation as part of its scorekeeping responsibilities.
But even that highly respected source is losing its cachet as evidenced in House Speaker Johnson’s rejection of CBO’s scoring of the $14.3 billion in the Israeli security assistance supplemental appropriations bill (H.R. 6126). The Speaker included a comparable cut in Internal Revenue Service enforcement monies to offset the money for Israel. The CBO ruled instead that reducing IRS tax collection capabilities would reduce revenues by $26.8 billion over the next decade and increase deficits by $12.5 billion. The bill nevertheless passed the House 226-196 on Nov. 2, only to be declared “dead on arrival” in the Senate before it even arrived.
The possibility that the government might one day have to close its doors for lack of funding was not even contemplated when the Budget Act became law. The new budgeting process was supposed to enable Congress to avoid the blind, fiscal fumbling of the past. Yet greater than Congress’s desire for a well-ordered budgeting process is its overriding commitment to satisfy constituent needs and thereby fulfill members’ reelection imperative. Not surprisingly, these drives are all too human.
Don Wolfensberger is a 28-year congressional staff veteran, culminating as minority staff director of the House Rules Committee (1989-94) and chief-of-staff of the full committee (1995-97). He is author of “Congress and the People: Deliberative Democracy on Trial” (2000) and, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays” (2018). The views expressed are solely his own.
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