Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Congress that called "Shutdown!"

The thing that's got all the political wags going this weekend is the Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union address to Congress on Thursday night. While Sen. Katie Britt's little presentation was eminently memeable -- and came SNL-cold-open-ready -- there's another aspect of congressional shenanigans that I want to talk about tonight. It's this business of the once and future government shutdown. 

lightsource | Deposit Photos
On Friday, mere hours before Congress's self-imposed deadline, the Senate approved one of two continuing resolutions to fund the government for the remainder of fiscal year 2024. To be clear, a continuing resolution (let's call it a CR) is not the budget -- it's an agreement to keep the government running under a previously-agreed-to level, often the previous fiscal year's budget, while Congress continues to work on the current-year budget. A CR to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year -- like the one just passed -- functions as a budget, but technically it's not.

We're not out of the woods yet for this fiscal year. The CR passed last week only covers part of the federal government's operational needs. A second CR needs to be approved by March 22nd, just a hair under two weeks from today. And you can rest assured that there will once again be a lot of breathless media coverage about congressional squabbling and who will block what, as well as which federal agencies will have to go dark if it's not approved and how it will all affect you, the American citizen.

I know this because this is the fourth CR this year. And CRs are becoming more commonly used -- there have been 135 since 1998 -- and are lasting longer. In 2007, 2011 and 2013, Congress never passed a budget at all -- it just used a CR for the whole year. Moreover, sometimes Congress and the President can't even agree on a CR; when that happens, as it did in 2014, 2018 and 2019, the government does shut down until an agreement is reached. So even though it seems like the media are crying "wolf" with their scary coverage of the potential damage if a CR doesn't pass, the threat of a shutdown is real -- and factions in Congress use that to their advantage in budget negotiations. 

It wasn't supposed to be this way. A mechanism that was supposed to be a convenience for a Congress that was close to a budget agreement but just needed a little more time has morphed into not just a negotiating tactic, but a cudgel.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has provided a listicle of five reasons why careening from near-shutdown to near-shutdown is bad:

  • When federal agencies have to prepare for a possible shutdown, it takes time away from their mission of helping Americans.
  • If a shutdown actually happens, the affected agencies can't do their jobs -- which, remember, is to provide services to Americans. Also, some federal workers are mandated to keep working, even if they're not getting paid for it -- including the military -- and worrying about how they can pay their bills isn't going to help their performance.
  • In a shutdown, it's harder for Americans to access government services. Everything from visa processing times to getting answers to doctors' questions to Medicaid, and a bunch of stuff in between, could take longer. And the people who use the most government services -- the poor -- will be impacted the most.
  • It hurts Americans' trust in government.
  • It hurts the reputation of the United States among foreign governments by making us look unstable.
But here's the thing: The folks throwing the biggest wrench in the federal budget process right now are MAGA Republicans. For them, these five problems are a feature, not a bug. A lot of them believe the federal government is too big and too bloated. They want it to appear dysfunctional -- it gives them an excuse to either cut funding for these apparently floundering agencies or do away with them altogether. Then taxes will be lower! That's always a good thing, right?

Eh, maybe not. Smaller government and lower taxes sound great -- until you need help.


Sick of it all? There's a way to fix it.

Shutdowns and threats of shutdowns occur most often when control of the executive and legislative branches of government are divided. The best way to fix it? Give control to a single political party, and give that party big majorities in both the House and Senate. And if you want government to work for you -- if you want services to be there when you need them -- that means funding them at an adequate level, not constantly cutting the budget. And that means voting blue.


So far, we've been talking about the FY 2024 budget. What's up with FY 2025, which starts October 1? 

President Biden is supposed to deliver his draft to Congress tomorrow. Congress is supposed to have the budget deal ready to go by the time the new fiscal year starts, but the current members will still be in office then. So brace yourself for more budget shenanigans.

These moments of breathless blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

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