The Prospects of Yet Another Government Shutdown

We have been here before. Congress goes to the brink of letting government funding run out – and then haphazardly goes over the edge.

It’s simple: The government is forced to shut down when Congress fails to pass timely appropriations bills to fund the government.

The odds are alarmingly high that Congress will force federal agencies off the cliff on April 28.

Since 1976, the government has been shuttered 18 times, sometimes for a day, sometimes for weeks. The longest shutdown was 21 days during the Clinton Administration.

What does a shutdown mean in practice?

While the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park will continue to erupt regularly, there will be no tourists to watch. Although the deadline for submission of tax returns has passed, no IRS employees will be able to process the returns or mail refunds. No one in the Department of Education will be reviewing student loan requests. No one at the Department of State will be helping countries build the programs that help prevent nuclear smuggling. 

Many federal employees will be furloughed; in 2013, an estimated 800,000 government employees were sent home for an involuntary vacation and those who still worked suffered delayed paychecks.

There are exceptions written into law. The 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and 8,400 in Afghanistan will not need to lay down their guns. The American astronauts on the International Space Station can remain in space.

With the executive branch and Congress both controlled by Republicans, it would appear that a government closing can be avoided.

But as the recent House fiasco on a plan to replace President Obama’s health care bill demonstrated, Republicans have yet to display a coherent plan to get critical legislation through Congress.

Faced with this impending deadline of April 28, Congress went on recess for two weeks, to return on April 24 with only four legislative days to go.

Right before the recess, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi estimated that there were still 100 unresolved issues.

The good news is that the members of the Senate and House Appropriations Committee tend to be pragmatists who are used to working with Members of the opposite party. If left to their devices, they could probably produce a bill.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is weighing in with its additional demands for the Fiscal Year 2017 budget. The President has requested $30 billion more for the Pentagon, and an additional $3 billion for the Mexico border wall, and to enforce immigration executive orders.

While appropriators of both parties have tended to ignore these requests, an April 12, 2017 CQ/Roll article highlighted Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s warning shot that the President’s budget will not be ignored. The President, he cautioned, has to sign the spending bill.

One alternative that Congress may consider is a year-long Continuing Resolution that maintains spending for the rest of the fiscal year at last year’s level. The Pentagon has been particularly vociferous in its objections to this last-ditch measure, which they argue will lead to a hiring freeze for the rest of the year and would force the Navy to cut down four of nine carrier air wings, all services to abandon plans to augment their active duty force and defer maintenance of existing equipment.

Critics on Pentagon spending, on the other hand, may feel relieved that the President Trump’s plan to hike the Pentagon budget has been deferred and offsetting cuts to domestic and diplomatic programs will not result.

It is clear that the Freedom Caucus, about 30 hard-right Republican Representatives, are happy to let the government go into hiatus, even if it means damaging programs that keep America safe. This is the same group of GOP members who were a major factor in sinking the Republican health care bill.

The only solution this year is to leave the negotiations in the hands of the bipartisan appropriators in both the House and Senate, with the backing of congressional leadership. They will have to toss some bones to the Trump Administration, even if he does not get his entire wish list funded this year and has proposals deferred to Fiscal Year 2018. And if the negotiators avoid “poison pill” provisions that one party or the other cannot accept, they can produce a bipartisan bill.

Bipartisanship, while toxic to some, could lead to a strong majority for the bill and would be a welcome tonic to the deep divisions in the country.