Facing another funding deadline on Nov. 17, amid fallout from Kevin McCarthy’s speakership ouster, a contingent of lawmakers in both parties is lamenting Congress’ perennial struggles to fund federal programs.
Kevin McCarthy refused to shut down the government to please GOP budget hawks and immigration hardliners, and then he lost his gavel, with another cliff just six weeks away.
Only in America.
“Not one other Western democracy has to deal with these things,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), the House Budget Committee’s top Democrat.
Facing another funding deadline on Nov. 17, amid fallout from McCarthy’s speakership ouster, a contingent of lawmakers in both parties is lamenting Congress’ perennial struggles to fund federal programs. Besides the toll at home — in dollars and disruption of services to regular people — they say the U.S. government’s unconventional pattern of shutdown threats is hurting the country’s reputation abroad.
“I hear from parliamentarians from our allied countries all across the ideological spectrum, expressing their increasing concern about dysfunction and division within the United States,” said Boyle, who is also a U.S. emissary to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.
“Our allies are very concerned at this moment, in terms of U.S. stability,” he added. “So if we go into a shutdown, that just adds more evidence to justify their fears.”
Other nations fund their governments differently, and advocates for ending U.S. shutdowns say Congress could follow suit. Here’s why government shutdowns are commonplace in the United States, and how lawmakers could avoid them:
Under the Constitution, Congress must appropriate all funds to be drawn from the Treasury. On top of that, a century-old law bars federal officials from making contracts and spending federal cash without Congress’ go-ahead.
The whole idea is to balance power between Congress and the president, said Keith Hall, a Republican who ran Congress’ independent budget office until 2019.
“So it’s part of our checks and balances that the two are separate,” Hall said. “And part of what that means, of course, is Congress has to sort of assert its right, when it can, to be clear that they have the power of the purse.”
Since the 1980s, thanks to a set of opinions by the attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, more teeth have been added to the ban on federal work continuing during government shutdowns, leading to furloughed employees and shuttered offices.
Those rules were further defined four years ago, when Congress’ independent watchdog said the Trump administration violated federal laws by keeping national parks running during a shutdown.
Technically, some other countries could run into the same problem, but they’ve never gotten to the point of actually shutting down.
In countries with parliamentary systems, the head of the government is often from the same party as the majority controlling the legislature. So protracted standoffs about government spending are rare. When it does happen, it is tantamount to a vote of no confidence, and a call for new elections could follow.
The same is true in the business world, said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
“You’d go into Chapter 11, if you’re lucky — a year or two to figure it out,” said Braun, who serves on the Senate Budget Committee. “And then if you don’t, you’re on the ash heap of business history.”
In some countries, the executive gets the power to set government funding if the legislature fails. In many others, automatic short-term funding kicks in when a spending measure isn’t enacted by deadline.
Some U.S. lawmakers want the same.
Recent budget woes have reignited interest in proposals to automatically spin off a stopgap spending patch if Congress fails to act by a funding deadline. To maintain incentive for Congress to clear new funding levels, lawmakers have sometimes proposed gradual reductions thereafter or banning Congress from debating anything except spending bills until the work is done.
Lawmakers hold up funding bills because they want something, but they often don’t get it. This year, many House conservatives want to use the threat of funding lapse to force congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden to agree to immigration restrictions and drastic cuts to non-defense spending.
“Ultimately, it’s sort of like putting the gun to the head of a hostage. You don’t want to pull the trigger. It’s not great leverage when, at the end of the day, politically it’s bad, and economically it’s bad,” said former Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was White House budget director under President George W. Bush.
Portman authored a plan for avoiding funding lapses during his time in Congress, but it never passed.
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump eventually relented after the 35-day shutdown spurred by his demands for money for a border wall.
In 2013, Republicans, egged on by their tea party wing, used a shutdown to try to force the defunding of Obamacare, which was set to go into effect in the next year. Sixteen days and a newly passed funding patch later, Obamacare remained untouched.
And in 1995, only a month after an earlier seven-day shutdown, disagreements between then-President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans over which economic forecasts to use — from Congress’ independent budget office or from the president’s budget office — resulted in a 21-day shutdown. Clinton won out, using his favored numbers for deeming his budget plan balanced.
The way the federal government gets funded in the U.S. cedes enormous authority to Congress, especially party leaders and the appropriators who decide where every dollar is steered.
“It’s been extremely difficult to get anyone in Congress to relinquish their power,” said Linda Bilmes, who teaches federal budget policy at Harvard, “either on the authorization side, which controls mandatory spending and taxes, or on the appropriation side, where you have extremely powerful, entrenched appropriations chairs.”