We should not be surprised by the next government shutdown

A majority of budget wonks think the federal government is headed toward a shutdown, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The nonprofit conducted its “highly unscientific poll” in late August, and 58 percent of respondents responded in the affirmative. 

I was one of the nerds who was asked, and I put the odds at 50-50. On the one hand, my optimistic side reasons that plenty of naysayers said America was going to plunge into a debt default this spring. We did not as Congress and President Joe Biden found a way to cut a deal. We have had plenty of shutdown scares in the past, and the politicians often find a way to avert it — often by enacting a continuing resolution. 

On the other hand, the more pessimistic side of me sees a few factors pushing us towards a shutdown. 

First, there is the fact of divided government. Of the 10 government shutdowns we have had that led to employee furloughs, only one occurred during unified government, and that was in 1980. All the rest have happened when the two parties have shared control of the legislative and executive branches. 

Right now, the divide is particularly messy, with neither party holding Congress as a whole and able to bargain one-on-one versus the president. Democrats barely hold the Senate and the White House, and Republicans have a thin majority in the House of Representatives. Moreover, a faction of the House GOP has staked out stark positions on spending, which has left Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) struggling to forge a majority that can move any appropriations bills. 

This leads to my second point: The two chambers have not come to an agreement on any of the spending bills. That leaves less than three weeks to get an agreement on 11 bills that Biden will sign. If that is not challenging enough, the president and some senators are pushing for a supplemental spending bill to cover various defense and other costs. And somehow all this spending is supposed to amount to no more than the spending caps Congress and the president agreed to back in June. 

Then there is the long-term trend. Until about 40 years ago, America did not have government shutdowns. Sure, on occasions, there were spending bills that failed to get enacted in time, but those funding gaps lasted less than a day or fell on weekends and therefore did not necessitate shuttering agencies and sending home workers. Ten shutdowns in four decades is a lot, and three of them have come since 2013. 

Here the reader may wonder, “Why is it that shutdowns are becoming more frequent?” There are several factors at work, but allow me to highlight four big ones. 

For one, the budget process Congress has used since the mid-1970s is long and laborious. It demands Congress pass 12 spending bills through both chambers that a president will sign and do so between February and September. Legislators see few incentives to do this hard work, and find it far easier to wait until the fiscal year is over and to try to enact a continuing resolution or a single colossal omnibus spending law to fund everything. 

Second, party competition for control of Congress has intensified. From 1933 to 1980, Democrats held majorities in both chambers of Congress almost continuously. Since then, control of the chambers has swung back and forth between the parties at a rate not seen since the late 19th century. Budget deals are harder to cut with each party jockeying for power. 

Third, some GOP conservatives have tried to use the threat of a government shutdown to persuade Democrats to curb spending. It has not been an especially effective tactic, but they see no other obvious options to cut skyrocketing federal spending. Additionally, conservatives feel they are giving away the store if they acquiesce to a continuing resolution that lacks spending reductions. 

Fourth, we voters little dissuade legislators from shutting down the government. Oh, sure, whenever a shutdown occurs Team Donkey and the Elephant Club point the fingers at one another and try to shift the collective blame. But when was the last time you wrote your senator or representative and said you would vote against him if he failed to help craft spending bills in a timely manner?  

All that said, I now wonder if my estimate of a 50 percent chance of a shutdown was too low. 

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the co-editor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020). He hosts the Understanding Congress podcast. 

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