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The debate around putting an end to all government shutdowns, explained

There’s growing lawmaker support to end shutdowns once and for all, but these bills could have some negative side effects.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) are two of the many lawmakers proposing legislation to end shutdowns.
Drew Angerer/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.

With another government shutdown deadline looming just weeks away, more and more members of Congress are considering bills that could make sure shutdowns never happen again.

Three such bills have been floated in the Senate, along with two others in the House, and while each of them would address the issue slightly differently, several would “automatically” maintain funding for the government if lawmakers are unable to reach an agreement on spending bills. By doing so, such measures would ensure that the government stays open — and federal workers keep getting paid — even if Congress doesn’t secure a spending deal by the necessary deadline.

As things currently stand, if Congress is unable to come to an agreement on appropriations, the parts of the government that have not been funded at that point wind up shutting down. By automating the passage of stopgap funding measures using what’s known as an “automatic continuing resolution,” lawmakers could prevent shutdowns forever.

With the country still reeling from the effects of the latest stalemate, and the whopping $11 billion in economic fallout it caused, curbing future shutdowns is a move that’s looking more and more appealing by the day. Doing so could have some negative side effects, however: While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled openness to such measures, House Appropriations Chair Nita Lowey and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer both argue that such laws would cripple lawmakers’ incentive to negotiate on spending.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said he’d be open to considering something that would deter future shutdowns.

“There certainly would be no education in the third kick of a mule,” he told reporters during a press briefing on Tuesday. “I don’t like shutdowns. I don’t think they work for anybody. ... I would be open to anything that we could agree on, on a bipartisan basis, that would make them pretty hard to occur again.”

These are the bills that have been proposed so far

A host of bills have been introduced that are intended to achieve this goal. Several of them would set up “automatic continuing resolutions” that would go into effect if lawmakers can’t agree on a spending package. Already, lawmakers pass continuing resolutions, or short-term spending bills, to give themselves more time to negotiate on larger bills. These bills typically just keep on funding the government at its current appropriations levels.

After reaching an agreement to end the shutdown this January, for example, Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the government open until February 15.

These bills would simply greenlight a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at existing levels if it goes into a shutdown again — and they would do it without Congress needing to grant its approval in the future. Here’s a rundown of some of the ideas that have been suggested:

  • The End Government Shutdowns Act: This legislation, from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), has the backing of nearly 20 Republicans and would trigger an automatic continuing resolution for the parts of the government that remain unfunded by the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. In order to keep lawmakers motivated to continue spending negotiations, the bill would also cut government spending by 1 percent if they are unable to reach a deal after 120 days. It would also continue to cut spending by 1 percent every 90 days that no deal is reached.

As Vox’s Dylan Matthews has reported, this approach has been criticized by liberal budget watchdogs including the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which argue that it could ultimately lead to significant spending cuts.

  • The Stop STUPIDITY Act: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has also introduced a bill that would establish an automatic continuing resolution to prevent future shutdowns. Warner’s bill does not include spending cuts, however, and would not cover spending for the executive office of the president and the legislative branch. His bill aims to pressure both the president and Congress to arrive at a deal by depriving both of them of much-needed funding.

Portman and Warner’s bills are the two offerings that have garnered the most backing thus far, though Warner’s office has slammed Portman’s option as “sequestration by any other name,” according to NBC News. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has also proposed a bill that would impose spending cuts if an appropriations agreement isn’t reached.

In the House, two bills have been introduced that would cut salaries and funding for all lawmakers during shutdowns, in order to deter them from letting such stalemates happen.

  • The Solidarity in Salary Act: This legislation, spearheaded by Reps. Jared Golden (D-ME), Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), and Max Rose (D-NY), would withhold pay for the president, vice president, and members of Congress during shutdowns. In the same way that government workers have to wait for back pay to come in after a shutdown, lawmakers would be forced to go without wages during these impasses.
  • The Shutdown to End All Shutdowns Act: Another group of first-term House lawmakers have proposed a bill that would both activate a 30-day automatic continuing resolution and block Congress members’ access to their salaries if they aren’t able to reach a deal after that time has elapsed. Democrats led by Reps. Elissa Slotkin (MI), Chrissy Houlahan (PA), Dean Phillips (MN), and Colin Allred (TX) introduced the bill on Tuesday, which would suspend pay for lawmakers as well as key funds for White House officials. It would also aim to protect government workers during shutdowns.

There are some potential drawbacks to all these options

While the idea of ending shutdowns certainly sounds like a positive outcome overall, there could be some drawbacks to doing so, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

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 in perpetuity.

“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, 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.”

Additionally, the threat of a government shutdown has historically forced lawmakers to attempt to compromise on certain policy priorities; without it, 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 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.”

Despite these pitfalls, lawmakers smarting from the negative effects of the recent shutdown could be committed to doing something to reduce the likelihood of future stalemates.

At this point, it’s still uncertain which route, if any, they’ll take.