A way to end government shutdowns for good

  • 8 February 2018
  • NormanL
Get to work

It looks like the federal government has avoided another shutdown, owing to an agreement that hikes spending over the next two years by roughly $300 billion. 

Putting aside where the feds intend to get this money (hint: it will be through more debt), how can these increasingly common shutdown showdowns be avoided in the future? Sen. Rob Portman has a very interesting idea:

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.

While a one percent reduction in federal spending is hardly draconian, it is enough to rile up Democrats:

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.

We are forced to wonder whether Republicans would show the same resolve today. We suspect they wouldn't -- because every politician, regardless of party, enjoys playing Santa Claus (with your money) far too much. But we get this perspective on why Democrats rallied against the idea in 2013:

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.

There's no question Congress should get its funding duties completed on time. It's part of the job. But as Congress has shown itself increasingly unwilling, or unable, to get that job done on time, and thus inviting shutdown showdowns, perhaps Portman's strong medicine is required.

It might not get Congress to spend more prudently. But it gives them a strong incentive to do the work they were hired to do.

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