We are now just one week from the deadline for yet another government shutdown on November 17 with no deal in sight, even though the last deal was meant to provide 45 days to arrive at one. Much of that time was spent selecting the new speaker and since then members of the GOP in the House of Representatives have been busy passing important bills such as reducing the salary of secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg to $1 a year because they don’t like some of the things he has done. Of course, that bill is going nowhere in the senate.
To get an idea of how dysfunctional things are, let us look at how the whole budget process should play out, something that is called ‘regular order’. It starts with the president submitting on the first Monday in February a budget for the fiscal year starting October 1. Note that 70% of the government’s expenditures, such as social security, is mandatory and outside the budget process so that only 30% of all government spending is covered by the budget. But those areas are crucial to many aspects of people’s lives.
By February 15, the Congressional Budget Office submits a report on the budget to the various budget committees of the house and the senate. Those two bodies have to come up with 12 separate appropriations bills. The various committees and subcommittees in the House and the Senate that have jurisdictions then get to have hearings where all the issues are aired and any changes made. These are then voted out of the committees and presented to the full bodies where again they are discussed and amendments proposed and voted on. Finally, there is a process of reconciliation where any differences between the house and senate versions are ironed out. All this is supposed to be completed by June 30th, allowing time for any slight delays, so that government agencies are made aware of their budgets well before the deadline of October 1 so that they can plan their actions for the next year accordingly. This process is designed to ensure that the final budget has been carefully thought out.
That is the theory. In practice, Congress has passed all appropriations bills in time only four times since 1977, with the last one being in 1997. There have been 20 funding gaps since 1977, leading to last minute crises and shutdowns.
For the first 200 years of the US’s existence, they did not happen at all. In recent decades, they have become an increasingly regular part of the political landscape, as Washington politics has become more polarised and brinkmanship a commonplace political tool. There have been 20 federal funding gaps since 1976, when the US first shifted the start of its fiscal year to 1 October.
Three shutdowns in particular have entered US political lore:
A 21-day partial closure in 1995 over a dispute about spending cuts between President Bill Clinton and the Republican speaker, Newt Gingrich, that is widely seen as setting the tone for later partisan congressional struggles.
In 2013, when the government was partially closed for 16 days after another Republican-led Congress tried to use budget negotiations to defund Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare.
A 34-day shutdown, the longest on record, lasting from December 2018 until January 2019, when Donald Trump refused to sign any appropriations bill that did not include $5.7bn funding for a wall along the US border with Mexico. The closure damaged Trump’s poll ratings.
Budgets are now negotiated in back rooms and presented by the leadership at the last minute in one huge omnibus bill that no member of Congress has time to read before voting on it or we have continuing resolutions that basically continue the previous budget.
Right wing extremists in the US have for the last half-century or so demonized the government so that they could prevent it form passing laws that restricted big business and the wealthy from getting richer. What we are seeing is the end result of that process where it is not this or that policy of the government that is opposed but the government itself is seen as evil. From there, all it takes is for some demagoguery to convince some people that no government at all is preferable to an imperfect one.
As far as I am aware, in no other country in the world does the legislative arm of the government force the government to shut down by withholding funding. The primary task of any government is to pass a budget or at least fund the working of the government. That seems to be taken for granted everywhere in the world. Even in countries where the legislature is in a state of collapse or even non-existent, its basic functioning continues. How has it come to this in the US, where threats of shutdown have become so routine? It is because of a law passed in 1884
Simply put, the terms of a piece of legislation known as the Anti-Deficiency Act, first passed in 1884, prohibits federal agencies from spending or obligating funds without an act of appropriation – or some alternative form of approval – from Congress.
If Congress fails to enact the 12 annual appropriations bills needed to fund the US government’s activities and associated bureaucracy, all non-essential work must cease until it does. If Congress enacts some of the bills but not others, the agencies affected by the bills not enacted are forced to cease normal functioning; this is known as a partial government shutdown.
When back in 1787, the authors of the US Constitution decided that all spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, they could not have dreamed that at some point down the road, the House would be comprised of people who were quite willing to use that power shut down the government. And for about 100 years or so, that faith was justified. I suspect that even those who passed the 1884 law would have envisaged it as merely preventing unregulated spending and not that it would be used to shut down the entire government.
And yet, here we are, lurching from one shutdown threat to another.