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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 few months.

Government workers rally to end a government shutdown in 2019.
Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Every December, it seems the US government finds itself in the same place: desperately trying to avoid yet another government shutdown and all of the economic and political problems that would bring.

This year has been no different.

This week, Congress is scrambling to pass a continuing resolution (CR), or short-term spending bill, to avoid a government shutdown before existing funding runs out on Friday. Lawmakers are broadly expected to do so: Democrats and Republicans on Thursday said they reached a deal that will extend government funding through February, but the measure still needs to pass both the House and Senate.

The threat of a government shutdown seems to loom on an annual basis, and some years, it comes every few months in the fall and winter. Because the deadline to pass annual spending bills is the end of September, when Congress misses that deadline, it usually passes a short-term funding bill that goes until December — setting up a government shutdown fight right before the new year. Official shutdowns didn’t begin happening until the 1980s, when Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti concluded that federal agencies couldn’t spend money if it hasn’t been approved by Congress.

If it seems like shutdowns have been happening more in recent years, that’s because they have. Since 2013, there have been four government shutdowns; prior to that, the last one 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.)

Threats of shutdowns, and actual shutdowns, are symptoms of how polarized Congress has become. 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 partisan priorities lawmakers were unable to pass earlier in the year. These provisions are added to spending bills because they’re generally considered must-pass legislation; when they aren’t successful, federal agencies go unfunded and key services like immigration courts, national parks, and airport security don’t have enough money to keep running at full capacity.

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.

That effort ultimately failed, but since then, some lawmakers have seen funding deadlines as good opportunities to send a political message. Although Republicans were blamed for the 2013 shutdown, it played well with certain members of the party’s base, 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 voters’ priorities. This year, for example, members of the congressional Freedom Caucus are calling on Senate Republicans to shut down the government to protest federal funding being used for President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.

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,” says Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

For example, in this round of appropriation negotiations, Republicans have taken issue with Democrats’ attempts to boost funding for climate-related measures.

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. But those are just another form of procrastination, and one that also exacerbates the original problem. Since Congress uses CRs as short-term spending patches with set expiration dates, each time one expires, it provides another opportunity for grandstanding and pandering to a party’s base. Those efforts, in turn, once again distract from the negotiation necessary to find a compromise that would allow the spending bill to be passed, leading to yet another last-minute CR, and the cycle repeating itself again.

This year, for instance, 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 year, lawmakers could threaten a shutdown then, too. 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.

“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,” says 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.”

That loud upswell was evident in 2013, when grassroots anger over Obamacare led House Republicans to refuse to vote for a spending bill if it included money for the Affordable Care Act. That forced a shutdown, and 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, 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,” says 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 loom both over this week’s negotiations and future ones as well.