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Why the government is constantly on the verge of shutting down

The threat of a shutdown seems to crop up every year.

Government workers rally to end a government shutdown in 2019.
Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The threat of a government shutdown seems to loom over Congress on an annual basis, and this year is no different.

In the coming days, Congress is scrambling to pass a continuing resolution (CR), or short-term spending bill, to avoid a shutdown before existing funding runs out on Friday. Lawmakers are broadly expected to do so: Democrats announced that they’ll vote on a one-week CR, which sets up a new deadline of December 23.

Given how Congress handles these bills, it can feel like the government is on the verge of a shutdown every few months in the fall and winter. Because the deadline to pass annual spending bills is October 1, and because lawmakers are constantly passing short-term spending bills to buy themselves more time, every time one of these CRs expires presents a new opening for a potential shutdown. If Congress isn’t done with the full-year bills by October, for example, it usually passes a short-term bill to keep the government open that expires in December, teeing up the possibility of a shutdown before the new year.

Such threats have grown more plausible in recent years as more shutdowns have taken place. Since 2013, there have been four government shutdowns, a major uptick compared to the previous decade when there wasn’t a single one. Before 2013, the last shutdown was in 1996. (In the 1980s and ’90s, there were also multiple shutdowns, but Congress shied away from this tactic in the years that followed.)

The government is susceptible to shutdowns because of US law: As both the Constitution and subsequent legislation have established, federal agencies aren’t supposed to use funds unless they’ve been appropriated by Congress. As a result, if lawmakers don’t pass appropriations in time, these government bodies have to shut down, furloughing employees and delaying services. Although such policies have long existed, official shutdowns as we know them didn’t begin happening until the 1980s, when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued an opinion stating that federal agencies had to curb operations if Congress hadn’t approved new funds.

The rise of the shutdown threat is a symptom of how polarized Congress has become. As both parties have become more partisan, Democrats and Republicans have found it difficult to agree on pretty much anything, including spending bills. In part, that’s because spending bills have increasingly been used as vehicles for priorities lawmakers were unable to pass earlier in the year. Additionally, since these are routine, must-pass measures, they offer a prime opportunity for lawmakers to use what leverage they have to send a political message to their base. Although Republicans were blamed for a shutdown in 2013, when they refused to pass spending bills in a bid to defund the Affordable Care Act, it still played well with many of their supporters, underscoring how these deadlines could be an opportunity to energize GOP voters.

That has left lawmakers eager to use spending bills — and shutdowns — to score political points and show their party’s voters that they are fighting for their priorities. In past years, Republicans have used the negotiations on spending bills to demand funding for a border wall, while Democrats have done the same with immigration policies.

Why the threat of a shutdown has become so common

Congress has become more divided in recent years, making it tougher to find compromises across many bills. That fact has also made it more difficult to pass spending legislation, and not just because lawmakers want to make political stands. Because polarization has led to lawmakers approving fewer bills overall, spending legislation is also often used to address other policy issues, which can make these measures more contentious.

“As Congress has consolidated more of its legislative work into fewer large, must-pass bills, those bills bear more of Congress’s political conflicts,” Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, previously told Vox.

For example, this year’s appropriations bill is also set to include reforms to the Electoral Count Act, which updates how Congress certifies presidential election results and is aimed at preventing a repeat of the insurrection that took place on January 6, 2021.

Add to this polarization Congress’s penchant for procrastinating, and the result is many of these key spending votes come down to the wire each time there’s a shutdown deadline.

With their backs against the wall, lawmakers often try to avoid shutdowns with continuing resolutions, bills that give them more time to finish their work, and that allow them to set up more funding fights down the line. This year, Congress passed a continuing resolution for the budget in September and is set to do another one this week. When that second CR expires again next week, that offers another inflection point for a funding standoff, though that’s less likely to happen given Democrats’ current control of Congress and the White House.

After Republicans retake the House next year, however, a shutdown becomes more likely since the GOP could use its leverage to try to demand social spending cuts. And because the government has shut down before, the possibility of doing so again no longer seems like as much of a nuclear outcome as it once did. In the last decade, the two longest shutdowns happened at least partially under a split Congress (the one in 2018 started when Republicans had full control but continued several weeks after Democrats took over the House).

“For each side, it plays to their political base to fight for what they think is important. There isn’t a loud upswell from the American public that says compromise, move forward, keep the government open,” said Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “There is a loud upswell from conservative Republicans who say shut down, keep our priorities.”

Prior to 2013, a government shutdown hadn’t happened in more than a decade. That’s partly due to the political fallout Republicans experienced when they forced a lengthy 21-day shutdown in 1996. After a wave of new Republicans, including more conservative Tea Party members, were elected in 2010, however, the party opted to use a shutdown again in 2013 to try to defund the Affordable Care Act.

In the process, GOP lawmakers successfully made their opposition to the law clear, though they eventually caved and funding for the ACA passed. That opposition became an important part of the party’s midterm messaging in 2014, however, a year in which they successfully regained control of the Senate and kept the House.

In early 2018, Democrats repeated this strategy, refusing to vote for spending legislation because they wanted more protections for DACA recipients, once again using the spending bills for political leverage. And in late 2018, President Donald Trump refused to approve a spending package unless it contained money for his border wall, money he ultimately found other ways to appropriate.

While members of both parties have historically utilized shutdowns, Republicans have been more likely to because of a broad interest in reducing government services. And when there are tight House and Senate majorities, as is currently the case, the incentive for lawmakers to derail must-pass bills as a means to make a political statement is even higher. As Republicans learned just a few years ago, doing so could bolster their messaging for upcoming elections — and allow the minority to retake control.

“If you’re focused on getting back in the majority ... it provides an incentive for parties to be less cooperative. It provides an incentive to be a little difficult,” said University of Texas Austin government professor Alison Craig.

But it’s important to remember that such maneuvers, while political in nature, can have real consequences. During the last shutdown, 800,000 federal workers went without pay for more than a month, and the US permanently lost $3 billion in GDP. Even when the government doesn’t actually shut down, the threat of one creates huge uncertainty for federal agencies and employees as they struggle to plan for potential closures.

There is a way to take the shutdown threat away

There is a way to neutralize the threat of a shutdown, but it could have some downsides, too.

In the wake of the 35-day 2019 shutdown, the longest the country has experienced, several lawmakers — including Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Mark Warner (D-VA) — introduced bills that would set up “automatic continuing resolutions,” or short-term funding bills that would go into effect immediately if Congress doesn’t pass appropriation measures by October 1. The idea is that automatic CRs could serve as a safety net, ensuring that federal agencies never run out of funding and that the government never shuts down.

To make sure that lawmakers would still be motivated to pass new spending bills and not rely on automatic continuing resolutions in perpetuity, Portman’s and Warner’s bills also have provisions that could force painful cuts if no action is taken. Portman’s bill would cut 1 percent in total government spending if lawmakers don’t pass full-year legislation within 120 days, and Warner’s would cut funding for the executive and legislative branches.

One of the potential downsides of automatic CRs is that they could make Congress complacent and uninterested in negotiating larger spending packages if they are able to keep relying on CRs.

“A CR, while it’s certainly better than a shutdown, is pretty much the next worst thing,” Shai Akabas, the associate director of the Economic Policy Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, previously told NBC News. “If we make it easier to do a CR by making it automatic, we’re probably going to have a lot of CRs.”

The threat of a government shutdown has historically forced lawmakers to attempt to compromise on certain policy priorities; for example, past spending deals have included agreements on pay raises for federal employees and aid for farmers. Without sharp deadlines to find such deals, there could be a reduced impetus to do so.

“No one likes government shutdowns per se, of course, but the ability to withhold funding — whether from specific programs, specific departments, or, at the extreme, from the entire government — can be a very powerful part of the congressional toolkit,” Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz previously told Vox. “Nothing brings various parts of the executive branch to the table like threats to their funding, and anything that decreases Congress’s ability to hold up that funding correspondingly decreases its ability to force the executive to negotiate and make concessions.”

For now, automating the CR process doesn’t seem to be on the table. So the threat of a shutdown will continue to hang both over this week’s negotiations and future ones as well.

Update, December 13, 1:15 pm ET: This story was originally published on December 2, 2021, and has been updated to reflect where talks on government funding stand in 2022.