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Commentary By Brian Riedl

Congress Should Ban Government Shutdowns

Economics Tax & Budget

Nearly everyone hates government shutdowns. A new poll shows that 84 percent of Americans felt the recent government shutdown was “unnecessary.” When Congressional Republicans shut down the government in 2013 over ObamaCare, they unsuccessfully tried to blame Democrats. And when Democrats recently shut down the government over immigration, they unsuccessfully tried to blame Republicans. Neither party wants to be blamed for furloughing federal employees, closing national parks, and preventing the military from getting paid.

So why not ban government shutdowns? Typically, when Congress reaches the October 1st fiscal new year without all 12 appropriations bills having been enacted, it passes a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the remaining bills at current levels until the new appropriations bills can be enacted. Congress and the President could simply pass a law making these CRs automatic. Never again could lawmakers hold a CR hostage to their outside demands (unless future lawmakers repeal this law). Federal agencies would have more continuity. Americans dependent on government services could avoid chaos. Lawmakers would not feel forced to vote for last-minute mammoth budget deals that they have not even read, out of fear that any gridlock will shut down the government.

Senator Rob Portman’s “End Government Shutdowns Act” (S. 918) would serve that purpose (full-disclosure: I was his chief economist when the bill was originally crafted). It would end government shutdowns by making continuing resolutions automatic. The bill adds one wrinkle: To keep everyone at the bargaining table, spending levels would automatically fall by one percentage point every three months until the stalemate ends. This would apply to both conservative priorities like defense spending, and liberal priorities like domestic spending – each of which Congress is showing increasing appetite to expand, rather than allow further cuts.

The Senate took up the End Government Shutdowns Act in early 2013 as an amendment to debt limit legislation. Unfortunately, the amendment was tabled by a 52-46 vote (meaning that 52 Senators voted to dismiss the amendment). Republicans voted almost unanimously to ban government shutdowns, while Democrats voted almost unanimously to continue the threat of shutdowns.

Note that while Republicans – the perceived anti-government party – are typically blamed for government shutdowns, it was Senate Democrats who blocked legislation to ban them. Why?

One seemingly-obvious explanation is that Democrats feared that the bill’s small automatic across-the-board cuts – even including defense – would be seen by Republicans as a feature rather than a bug. That is certainly a debate-worthy proposition. Yet not a single Democratic Senator counter-offered to strike that non-essential portion of the bill.

Instead, opponents argued that Congress should simply “do its job” and pass all the appropriations by October 1st in order to make the CR issue moot. That is like arguing against seat belts because we should just try harder to avoid car accidents.

Yes, in a perfect world Congress would always enact all 12 appropriations bills before October 1st. In reality, this has happened only twice since 1985. The other 31 years saw an average of just one annual appropriations bill enacted on time. And between 2009 and 2015, not a single appropriations bill was completed before October 1st.  It does not matter which party is in control.

This is symptomatic of a broken budget process. The budget resolution typically sets spending levels in April. Then, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees must write and approve 12 complicated spending bills. Next, a true open amendment process would often require a full week to process each individual bill on the House and Senate floor, before forming 12 conference committees to negotiate the differences, and then sending 12 conference reports back to the House and Senate for final passage.

Completing this all by October 1st would leave Congress with little time to do much else. Legislation affecting taxes entitlements, immigration, foreign policy, and most program authorizations, as well as executive and judicial nominations, would be squeezed out. Even canceling most Congressional recesses – which would take away time to meet with constituents back home – would not solve this problem.

Instead, Congress typically spends the summer addressing other important legislation, passes a CR shortly before October 1st, and then later merges all 12 appropriations drafts into one large, unamendable omnibus bill. This is an undemocratic mess. A more manageable and realistic solution would consolidate from 12 to 6 appropriations bills and then switch to biennial appropriations whereby three bills are enacted each year.

However, until the appropriations process is overhauled, annual CR debates will remain an unavoidable reality. Continuing to allow lawmakers to block these CRs and shut down the government serves no healthy purpose.

Leading Democrats such as Harry Reid and Howard Dean have argued that Democrats should root for government shutdowns and maximize their pain in order to blame Republicans. The Democrats’ recent shutdown debacle should put an end to that cynical strategy.

Republican and Democratic voters are tired of government shutdowns. Lawmakers should come together and ban them.

Brian Riedl is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @Brian_Riedl.

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